Beauty That's More Than Skin Deep: Mehndi Bridal Painting

by: Michael Kabel

Mehndi is an ancient use of the organic ink henna to create intricate designs on the hands, feet, and wrists. In parts of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Somaliland the tradition typically includes only brides. Within India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and some other locales, however, the bridegroom may be included as well.

Mehndi uses henna, the organic ink.

Henna is a flowering plant found in some tropical regions of Africa and Asia. Its leaves produce a special red-orange dye molecule called lawsone that binds with protein molecules, making it an excellent dye for the skin.

Using Henna (lawsone) as ink is an ancient practice, dating at least as far back as the Bronze Age in some parts of the world. In the Bible's Song of Songs and Song of Solomon, henna is referred to as camphire. Wall paintings found on the Isle of Cyprus depicting women with henna-styled designs have been dated as far back as 1680 BC.

Recently, however, improvements in growing and cultivation, along with an increased style presence in the Western World, have resulted in increased visibility and use.

Henna binds with the skin.

Henna leaves are usually ground up, then mixed into a paste with certain acidic liquids (such as lemon juice), in preparation for applying designs. As the paste is applied, the lawsone shifts to the topmost layer of skin, binding with the skin's natural proteins. Allergic reactions to the henna are rare and include symptoms typical of allergic reactions: itching, shortness or breath, and a tightness in the chest. Only in very rare cases, such as with people having a G6PD enzyme deficiency, can henna prove potentially fatal.

The dying process takes only minutes; the longer the paste is left on the skin, the more lawsone will shift and bond with the skin cells. The lawsone is initially orange but after a day or so will darken to a deep, lustrous reddish brown.

One common mistake is to confuse henna body painting with the more widely known practice of tattooing. Tattooing is different in that the pigmentation is actually inserted beneath the skin, not along its surface as with henna. Depending on the quality of the paste, the henna designs last anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months.

Mehndi is for brides and grooms together, and for other special occasions.

For brides, the Mehndi painting is done two or three days before the actual wedding ceremony, in a format very similar to a bridal shower. Family and friends relax, sing songs, and generally enjoy one another's company while the bride receives her Mehndi designs. The henna is applied with a plastic cone or sometimes a paintbrush, then wrapped overnight in bandages that trap the body's heat. This helps the henna achieve a more lustrous color. The complete process usually takes around two to three hours, depending on the intricacy of the design work.

Grooms also receive Mehndi designs. In the Indian state of Rajasthan, for example, the groom's designs are every bit as elaborate as the bride's.

In Arabic and Persian countries, Mehndi isn't limited to the wedding celebration alone. Women may receive the designs to commemorate a new pregnancy, an engagement, or even a birthday.

Getting a Mehndi design of your own.

As Mehndi has grown in worldwide popularity since the mid-1990s, new designs elements have been included in the traditional ink patterns. Glitter, body paint and even ornamentation now routinely complement the designs and patterns.

Mehndi and henna design application is often a vocation, with professional artists practicing their craft all over the world. An online database of Mehndi designers can be found at There are also many do-it-yourself and instructional books on Mehndi, including pattern books and design catalogs.