Mehendi and the Feminine Mystique in India

Marriage Bangles & Mehendi

Marriage Bangles with Mehendi Patterns

I am not the only one who finds the ornate patterns painted on Indian women’s hands with a paste of mehendi (also known as henna)  alluring, as it is one of the many important features of the bridal attire and accompanying rituals. The bride’s mehendi patterns are the most intricate, elaborate and expensive. It is not unheard of for the mehendi artist to deftly paint in the groom’s name, hidden amongst all the swirls and arabesques. On their wedding night, the groom is now allowed to see his new wife’s painted limbs and attempts to find his camouflaged name, a very romantic tradition.

I clicked the above photograph during the “marriage season,” whose dates are determined according to astrology. Nearly all newly wedded Hindu brides wear a set of matched red and white bangle bracelets known as choora or choori, which is the plural form. She wears them for forty days. Traditionally, they are gifted to her from her mother’s brother. After the forty days end, so does the honeymoon. I read that this tradition began in the Punjab but has spread throughout most of India. The design of the choori has distinct regional differences but the red and white ones are the most popular.

Women all over Indian enjoy preparing for a special occasion by getting their hands decorated with mehendi, myself included. I admit, though, I don’t need a special occasion to have it done. I especially like to have my hands hennaed  when I am about to leave India. It lasts for about a week and helps me to say farewell. I look down at my hands when I am back in the west with fondness. Though I am sad, there is this visible reminder of my connection to India even though it is fading, it gives me pleasure and is a reassurance that it was real, that I really was there and that I will return.

Mehendi in Process

Mehendi Painting Drying

While seated on a low stool where many mehendiwallas offer their skills in Delhi, waiting for my hands to dry, a foreigner stopped to watch with fascination. After a few minutes he asked if he could take a photograph of my hands. I agreed. Afterwards, he asked if I had a camera and if I wanted him to take a photograph with my camera. He was pleasant and had an honest face or I wouldn’t have allowed him to open my bag and take out my camera and take this photo of me! My hands were damp with the mehendi paste and the drying process is essential to its success. Without drying properly, you could end up with a big smudged mess.

The art of mehendi has been part of the cultures of India, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle  East for more than 5,000 years. It is known to have cooling properties too. In the desert districts of Rajasthan, especially during the summer, the locals apply mehendi  to their palms and feet and even to the scalp, without any pattern just to help maintain a slightly lower body temperature and to keep them cool.

Bride at the Beauty Salon

Bride at the Beauty Salon

I love going to Indian beauty salons, partly because they are much more affordable than in the west but also because of all the unusual treatments that are on offer. While waiting for my pedicure and threading in the salon that I photographed above, I couldn’t help but notice the exquisite and finely detailed mehendi patterns on this bride- to- be’s arms. She traveled to Bombay solely for this purpose. Here, back in Rajasthan, she is having her hair styled. Unfortunately, my battery ran out, my spare was back in the room and this was the only shot I got!

The Indian treatment of all things feminine is so beautiful that next year I am going to incorporate them into one of my tours. Who knows, you might just want to discover, ” The Feminine Mystique in India” with me.

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Buri Nazar – Warding Off the Evil Eye

Baby Uglification

Baby Uglification

The desire to ward off the evil-eye or buri nazar in Hindi and drishti in Sanskrit is ubiquitous in India and it takes numerous forms. But what you may ask are the effects of the evil-eye that every one is so keen to prevent? From what I understand, it often comes from envy and jealousy and general negativity directed at you. It can arrive in the form of illness, misfortune and cause misunderstandings between people, inexplicable bad luck and in the worst case, death.

In the West, we are eager to call this superstition and regard it with condescension as unscientific and brush it off as ignorance. Yet nearly every culture has something akin to buri-nazar and it merits more than a casual dismissal.  I certainly am not qualified to offer an explanation but with so many people world-wide believing in the power of the evil-eye, it should make us all stop and wonder. Just maybe there is something to it and maybe that something stems from the power of faith; something that scientists have never been able to adequately explain.

To ward off the evil-eye people chant mantras, call upon the services of pandits or Hindu priests and astrologers, wear amulets and place demon’s faces and other assorted effigies on the exteriors of their homes for protection.

In the photograph above, a young mother has placed an “uglification” mark on her baby’s forehead to protect it from harm so that no one will be envious or jealous of her lovely child and to ensure that no harm will come to it.

 

Pompoms and Tassels

Pompoms and Tassels

All over India one sees vehicles adorned with black tassels and pompoms to ward off the evil- eye and as insurance against a potential accident.

Homes also have their special talismans to keep the evil- eye away. These talisman can take many forms. Often the image of a demon’s face is hung outside toward the roof of a home and sometimes demon dolls are placed there or over an entrance. The stringing of lemons with green chiles is another means of keeping the evil- eye at bay.

Demon Image Outside a Home

Demon Image Outside a Home

Demon Doll

Demon Doll

Key Ring with Plastic Chiles and Lemon

Key Ring with Plastic Chiles and Lemon

I do not think of myself as superstitious yet I readily accept that there are forces more powerful in the universe than mankind. If most of the world believes that these amulets and talismans can help ward off evil then I will go along with them and employ a few. I also consider them a charming form of folk art that I enjoy having around me; if they can stave off the evil- eye, so much the better.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mattress Makers Come to Town

Al Fresco Production

Al Fresco Production

India is known to enchant visitors with unexpected sights and on this afternoon, this sight had me grabbing for my camera yet again. In front of a small guest house in rural South India, I saw a makeshift assembly line producing mattresses. With limited language skills, I think that I understood that the guest house had bed bugs, a pest, not so uncommon in my own city of New York and they were now required (by the police?) to make new ones. There are no mattress stores in this town. Mattress makers come right to the premises.

Part of their equipment includes an unusual machine that recycles the mattress stuffing. The stuffing from the old mattresses is fed through this machine. The old stuffing comes out fluffy and fresh looking.

Recycled Stuffing with Blue Machine

Recycled Stuffing with Blue Machine

They also come with a sewing machine and striped cotton mattress ticking. By the time I passed, all the mattress covers were sewn.

New Mattress Covers

New Mattress Covers

Stuffing the Mattress

Stuffing the Mattress

Tufting the Mattress

Tufting the Mattress

I was talking to a friend recently who was complaining about his credit card debt. He mentioned that he was almost finished paying off his new mattress and box spring which cost him $1,900.00. I’m sure he has a very fine mattress but he paid a very fine price for it too. What is the conclusion? The cost of progress is very dear, in so many ways. India helps me put so many things in perspective, sometimes with a ping of pain but mostly with a smile. I think I’ll sleep on that.

 

 

 

 

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Village Commerce at Work

Miscellaneous Goods

Miscellaneous Goods for Sale

In the villages of rural Rajasthan, commerce is at its most appealing and human level.  Gentrification with its ever spiraling rents and desire to please the wealthy hasn’t arrived here. The pace of both life and business is slow. People take the time to catch up with each others news and to gossip in the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Cloth Merchants

Cloth Merchants

I imagine that these businesses have been in the family for many generations. They get passed on from one generation to the next. They, no doubt, ensure a reliable but predictable future. Most of the subjects in these photographs are not young men. Maybe the younger men are studying or have gone to the city to enter a more challenging field like technology. Women do not work. In the villages, it is customary to get married and to remain at home with their husband’s family.

 

Jewelry Shop

Jewelry Shop

Within a few short blocks all the needs of a small village are visible.

Laundry Man

Laundry Man

Curd Shop

Curd Shop

Not every one is fortunate enough to have a shop.  Artisans set up their workshops directly on the street.

Ornament Beader

Ornament Beader

When afternoon arrives and the sun begins to lower and the body tires from a full day of toil, no one hesitates to take a snooze.

Afternoon Nap

Afternoon Nap

What I see is what I photograph: an orderly, functioning village whose system of commerce provides for them. Perhaps my words paint an idyllic view but the pictures tell the real story.

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Idlis Under Attack

Idlis with Sambar and Chutney

Idlis with Sambar and Chutney

Idlis in South India are practically worshiped like dosas, vadas and cows. They are the perfect way to start the day and are a typical South Indian breakfast. Idlis are a savory steamed cake made from a batter of  unhusked fermented black lentils and rice. From what I read, the fermentation process breaks down the starches and speeds up the metabolic process of absorption. This makes them healthy and light. They are often served with a tangy, soup like sauce called sambar. I consider myself a sambar expert. I love sambar. In many ways, sambar reminds me of potato salad because there are so many variations, each one reflecting the preference of the locale and the ingredients indigenous to that place. The further south one travels, the hotter the sambar. The idlis are also accompanied with a savory grated coconut chutney.

While spending time in South India, I often frequent a tiny idli shop that is across the street from my small hotel. It caters to the locals, has a small menu and is inexpensive. It has 2 blue plastic tables on the street where I sit and a few tables inside. The waiter has been there for years and knows me well. I don’t have to tell him what I want. The sambar is the best I’ve tasted anywhere but it is fiery hot with chiles. Every morning at 4AM the owner prepares the sambar. At 6AM they open.

I eat slowly watching the street life that is transpiring all around. This is a small town and cows roam freely. The Hindus venerate cows and treat them kindly but they are shooed away from vegetable stalls and outdoor restaurants like this one but the cows are persistent and determined, well aware that they need not fear for their safety so they keep returning. One such cow kept coming back, determined to have breakfast too.

Coy Cow

Coy Cow Watching the Restaurant

With aplomb and nonchalance this cow strolled over to my table, placed her head on the table and looked at me with those doe eyes, giving me plenty of time to capture the moment.

Cow At My Table

Cow At My Table

The waiter cleared my plate, picked up a switch that was waiting for just this purpose and clucked loud and menacing noises at the cow, waving the switch in mock anger but the cow knew she had nothing much to fear and ambled off unruffled. The waiter brought my filter coffee and I sat back with pleasure, relishing its rich aroma and creamy taste, very amused to have witnessed idlis under attack.

 

 

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Fit For A Bridegroom

ninagrandiose:

I can hardly believe that there was a time when I didn’t know how to post photographs. This post dates from then! I’ve added the relevant photos and hope that you will enjoy this rather lengthy post.

Originally posted on Ninagrandiose's Blog:

The Bridegroom Gets Fitted

The Bridegroom Gets Fitted

Seated on the back of my friend, Dinesh’s motorcycle in Rajasthan, India, we pass at least fifty Langur monkeys lined up, one after the other, on the side of the road. Dinesh has never seen me so sad. To help take my mind off my troubles and my imminent return to New York City, he’s invited me to join him on a ride down the mountain to the next town, about twelve kilometers away.

Hindus in India consider the Langur monkeys sacred but with their bearded chin tufts and bushy eyebrows, they remind me of Islamic scholars. With all my many years of travel in India, these dark faced, long-tailed creatures still fascinate me. In my sad state, my mind dredges up the fact that there is usually one dominant male who sires all the offspring. When a new male seizes power, he kills all the…

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Queen Turmeric

Fresh Turmeric

Fresh Turmeric

While strolling the back streets of Madurai down in South India, I came across this pile of fresh turmeric. I had to stop and take a photo because I have never seen turmeric sold like this with its leaves and stalks completely whole. I’ve seen it sold all over India and even in Mexico but always resembling ginger and looking more like an orange tinted root.

Turmeric is ” the Queen of Spices.” This title has to do with its long list of healing and preventative properties. I am not a scientist so I wouldn’t begin to venture an explanation as to how or why it works but there is such a long list that all turmeric can help with. Here are a few. It is a natural antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-carcinogen and anti-inflammatory. It is also loaded with nutrients like protein, dietary fiber, niacin, vitamin C, E and K. It can help with arthritis, help control diabetes, reduce cholesterol levels and stimulate the immune system.

I have developed the habit of cooking with it regularly. It has a mild, nutty flavor and is the basis for the yellow coloring in most curries. With so many properties, sprinkling it into your usual recipes may add to your quality of life. One of my favorite uses apart from curries etc, I prepare a spice mix with some turmeric, cumin, chat masala, black salt and grated parmesan cheese and mix it into my popcorn.

In Gujarat, I’ve seen raw turmeric, thinly sliced and placed right on the thali. With plants  offering us so much, I prefer to eat my vitamins like this than take vitamin pills. Nature’s bounty is all around us like so many gifts waiting to be unwrapped.

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