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.
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.
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.