Mehndi’s Cultural Relevance (and why it’s much bigger than the sun you got at the beach)

My happiness often peaked in the fall near Navratiri and Diwali season, dressed in gorgeous, draping red lehengas and beautiful jewelry, mehndi trailing up my arm in intricate designs. The small tubes were found at the Indian store and I’d breath in the smell as they traced floral designs to my inner-elbow, would stand stick-straight with my arms outstretched to make sure the designs would not warp. 

Maybe you know mehndi better as “henna,” what the faint orange daisies and crescent moons at small beach kiosks have come to call the art and tradition of mehndi. What started off as an important aspect of Indian culture is now one of the most acceptable forms of cultural appropriation in today’s society. 

Mehndi and it’s relevance in Indian and South Asian culture as a whole has been distorted as time passed. Mehndi (yes, that’s what it’s called) is traditionally applied prior to any large Hindu ceremonies or festivals, a form of art that has lasted in South Asian culture since what historians believe to be centuries ago. The color denotes luck and good virtue, and is used as a way to spread auspiciousness on important days. Mehndi artists spend years discovering and perfecting the precise art behind each stroke. 

Most commonly, and most notably, Mehndi is used on wedding days. The “mehndi ceremony” is a day before the wedding where the bride’s family organizes a day for the ladies in attendance to sperad good virtue and offer blessings for positive health in the coming years of her marriage. Wedding mehndi is some of the most intricate, often done on the feet and hands, and tradition calls for the husband’s name to be hidden somewhere in the designs. If the groom is able to find it, it draws auspiciousness to the match. The tint is darkened with lemon juice and coconut oil, a trick you learn early on.

Medicinal properties of the root that creates the paste are also well-known in South Asia. The paste acts as both a natural sunblock and a coolant, calming down the person wearing it. It’s linked to helping with headaches, too, and skin ailments. 

It’s not that we only use the paste for auspicious things, or that each particular aspect of the design is somehow culturally relevant, but the issue lies in that it has never been a tool for decoration. Girls coming back from the beach with suns tattooed on their palms miss the mark for how beautiful and important mehndi is, and why we wear it. After centuries of tradition living behind each design on my palm, it feels scary to think that the designs I grew up wearing are the next “fad.” Girls parade around at Coachella with flowers on their hands, trailing up their fingers. It’s “body art.” 

But when you grow up as an NRI, that is non-resident Indian, you want to hold on to some aspect of your culture. Mehndi is that aspect for so many people. While I’m not making the claim that only South Asians should use mehndi, there’s equal importance for those sporting around “pretty designs” on their arms and feet to fit the look at music festivals to understand exactly what they’re putting on their body. The intentionality of the mehndi I grew up with was lost in translation to it’s Americanized counterpart. 

An easy start? Don’t call it Henna.

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