Mehndi has been in use for almost 5,000 years. The ink that creates the gorgeous patterns of the mehndi designs is derived from the leaves of the cypress flower. The ink, when applied is a shade of orange, but as it remains on the skin for a few days its color darkens to a dark red or brown. It is a tradition throughout many Asian cultures to decorate the body with Mehndi designs and the patterns vary with each culture. The most commonly known Mehndi art comes from India, Pakistan and North Africa.
The Mehndi styles of India are most frequently used for the brides in wedding ceremonies. Indian patterns of Mehndi utilize finely drawn lines and beautiful floral imagery. The Mehndi art that graces an Indian bride is typically applied to the hands, forearms and feet. There is a belief in India that darkly colored Mehndi artwork will ensure a happy marriage.
The Pakistani method of Mehndi application is a greatly detailed and time consuming artistic process. Applied for marriage and religious ceremonies, the Pakistani Mehndi designs incorporate Arabic and Indian styles into gorgeous imagery that incorporate parallel images and mesh work with motifs that range from peacocks to paisleys.
The North African Mehndi design is big and vivacious. It includes a series of geometric patterns and the empty spaces that enhance the rest of the design.
The figures and patterns that make up Mehndi art are not random. Each figure and design have deep meaning. The Bindu or point, represents the Ultimate Reality. A triangle aimed downward symbolizes femininity. Pentagrams represent the heavens and the four ancient elements of fire, earth, water and air. Squares symbolize a stable life of honesty and order. Circles represent the unending nature of life. The arcs that generate from the same central point are called mandalas and they represent the quest for inner truth in a multi-layered reality.
But Mehndi symbols are not just limited to geometric shapes and figures. Nature plays a big part in the creation of Mehndi designs. For example, Flowers are featured heavily and symbolize vivacity and joy. Lotus flowers are especially prominent in Mehndi ornamentation, and they represent the enrichment of the soul. Other symbols of nature include butterflies which indicate rebirth, scorpions that symbolize romance and the tortoise which, according to ancient beliefs, offers the promise of fertility.
But it isn’t just the beautiful patterns and artwork that have the meaning in the Mehndi tradition. It is also considered extremely significant where on the body the design is applied. Mehndi artwork applied to the palms establishes that one is ready to be blessed. When drawn on the back of the hands, the recipient is said to have the protection of a higher being. When the Mehndi patterns are applied to the feet, it symbolizes a connection between the physical form and the spirit to the earth.
The intricate and gorgeous patterns and designs that are used in Mehndi artwork are part of an ancient history that combines religion, cultural traits and an appreciation for the world around us. Those who wear the Mehndi designs on their bodies feel a sense of inclusion in a tradition that has spanned continents, culture and faiths.