The History Of Henna Is Rooted In South Asian Heritage & Feminity

The art of henna has been intrinsically tied with South Asian heritage and femininity for centuries.
The art of henna has been intrinsically tied with South Asian heritage and femininity for centuries.L: Ruqaiyyah R: Vishahzaidi

The art of henna has been intrinsically tied with South Asian femininity for centuries. Women in Eastern cultures tend to rely on the natural world to acquire products for rituals of beauty. This dying agent is derived from a shrub-sized flowering plant which leaves a reddish-brown colour on application and is applied to form unique designs rooted in native symbols and ethos. The auspicious substance has not only been utilised for body adornment but also has unique medicinal properties related to healing. 

The origins of henna remains a contested topic as there are many theories around its arrival in India. It is due to multiple migrations and cultural influences through invasions that many jewels, designs and rituals arrived in the subcontinent. While some believe that henna was brought to India by Egyptian Mughals in the 12th century C.E. However researchers argue that it had originated in ancient India itself. There are references to the use of henna clearly illustrated on Bodhisattvas in the 4th-5th centuries in the Deccan of western India. Additionally, they are also found on the deities depicted by the cave wall murals at Ajanta, and in similar cave paintings in Sri Lanka.

Similar to ancient Egypt where indigenous and aboriginal people relied on the staining substance to connect with earth’s energies; natives in ancient India also shared a unique connection with mother earth and would use natural substances as Henna to further foster human awareness of nature's bounty and abundance. The natural cooling properties of henna were utilised by people living in hot desert climates and a paste would be made, in which the palms of hands and the soles of feet would be soaked. It would further be used to treat ailments such as stomach aches, burns, headaches, and open wounds.

While the art of mehendi (the urdu term for Henna) has been reduced to the simplistic term of ‘henna tattoos’ in the west, becoming a staple at musical festivals such as Coachella to help patrons adorn a ‘bohemian’ aesthetic. It is quite differently utilised in South Asian countries, where women use it to foster bonds, engage with ancient rituals and to embrace their femininity. It is also an integral part of special cultural occasions such as weddings and is counted as one of the auspicious steps in the sixteen step ritual of 'Shringar' that's rooted in Hinduism. 

Henna has unique connotations to good health, fertility, wisdom, protection and spiritual enlightenment. Devoid of any side effects, henna is a natural substance used to safely dye hair, nails, and fabrics like silk, wool, and leather. Many young South Asians are rediscovering the substance and using it in ingenious ways. The art form is being revived to complement the aesthetics of a new generation of South Asian, in a way that allows them to form their own special connection with henna using a blend of modern and traditional motifs.