“Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit of which Nature herself is animated.”
~François Auguste René Rodin~
The Art of Mehndi
Body decoration with mehndi, or henna, is a tradition that has flourished wherever there are groups of women who gather to celebrate the transitions of Life. An enduring transmission of joy, protection and communion takes place as women hold hands and laugh together, giving and receiving the designs of mehndi.
This tradition reaches us from the ancient past of Egyptian pharaohs who's tombs reveal henna-dyed hair and nails. It spread to India, into the Middle East and on to Morocco where the heat of the sun was relieved by the cooling power of henna paste. There are reports of henna decoration taking place in Japan, China and among many Jewish communities. Each culture has created their own signature designs incorporating potent symbols from the aesthetic and mythology of each place.
The henna plant has, from ancient times, been honored for its power to heal and protect. In Morocco the plant and its designs are said to contain baraka, or the grace of God, which provides protection and fortune. As each new phase of life is approached there is an inherent state of vulnerability. One is alert and childlike again, as a new perspective on oneself in relation to the world slowly forms. The art of henna is ready to offer its protective powers. Special essential oils and herbs can be added to the paste and specific symbols worked into the design in order to evoke the powers needed to move through life's gateways with ease.
The deep rich orange designs made with henna look as if they've emerged from within the skin itself, as if the ornate blueprint of the spirit-body has suddenly risen to the surface. Beneath the intricate beauty of henna artwork the fragile self is safe to transform and become new. The herb paste, lovingly applied, gives its blessing and support. A potentially frightening juncture of life becomes a celebration.
Henna has been often used at the end of pregnancy on the round belly of the mother-to-be. The eighth month is known to be a particularly auspicious time for celebrating the courage and love of the pregnant woman. In Morocco the newborn baby would also be protected from the evil eye by dabbing henna on the face or hands or even massaging it, mixed with oil, into the baby's whole body. In many places the umbilicus is cauterized with a bit of henna, which is known to help blood coagulate.
Wedding showers are very traditional times for a woman and her friends to celebrate with henna. The tradition in India is for a woman who is filled with happiness to apply the mehndi to the bride-to-be, for then that young woman will also be filled with happiness in her new marriage. Weddings in India are long affairs and the bride is often pampered and cared for so that her mehndi designs can become very dark and last a long time. The less washing and scrubbing one does with the hands, the longer the art will remain. It has been thought that a long-lasting and dark design will ensure that the marriage will be long and loving.
Now, when women move through a transition and need support, a henna party brings friends together with intent and purpose. The symbology of the designs that each person carries with them for the following week to six weeks can remind the wearer of her inner strengths and community of well wishers. Joyful and sensual, playful and evocative, the feminine powers of mehndi art reach from the ancient past into our lives today to assure us that the creative spirit never dies when we reach out to one another with kindness in our hearts.
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