Henna holds a sacred spot in hearts and on hands


This hand models a henna design drawn by junior Tabeer Naqvi’s mother. “Henna makes me happy because it is a part of my culture and symbolizes joy,” Tabeer said.

By Sophie Jaro, St. Paul Academy and Summit School

Is it art? Is it history? Is it celebration? One ancient cosmetic is deemed all three; henna is an ancient art form with a rich history of celebration.

For centuries, both simple street artists and refined professional designers have applied this rusty red paste to the hands and feet of young women hoping to catch the eye of future husbands, deflect the evil eye of sinister spirits, or please the eye of the casual observer with henna’s elegant and intricate patterns.

Henna is a natural, temporary stain used to swirl meaningful designs on the skin. The paste’s pigment comes from the leaves of a plant, Lawsonia Inermis, grown in the arid landscapes of the Middle East, Africa, India, and Pakistan. When powdered and mixed with sugar, water, and lemon juice, the plant becomes a potent natural dye that can be drawn on skin Once the paste has had time to harden, the excess can be removed to reveal a red-brown hue in the painted pattern. Henna designs tend to be lacy, geometric and floral.

Although an individual henna masterpiece lasts only a few weeks, the practice as a whole has lasted thousands of years.

This early cosmetic product has become a historical beauty staple. Some say the henna craze began in the late Bronze Age around the eastern Mediterranean. Others argue that henna’s age and omnipresence across the southern Eurasian continent make it impossible to determine a date or country of origin. Inscriptions map henna’s use in Syria as early as 2100 B.C., the Greek islands from around 1700 B.C., the Egyptian Dynasties from 1500 B.C. and India beginning in 400 B.C.

Henna makes me happy because it is part of my culture and symbolizes joy”

— junior Tabeer Naqvi

Over the centuries and across the continents, henna has linked the hands and hearts of a variety of religious believers. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Christians use henna to express religious stories and celebrate faith. Mehndi, the Indian art form of henna application, covers the skin with squiggly lines resembling red lace. While Indian designs maximize the amount of henna on the hand, Arabic patterns are more open, flowing from a few fingers down the forearm to accentuate the arm’s natural elegance. For traditional weddings, Yemeni Jews embellish the body with more linear designs, while an increasing Christian movement has used contemporary art forms of henna to express classical biblical stories on the palm of the hand.

For a tradition that originated long ago and far away, henna hits close to home for some students at St. Paul Academy and Summit School.

“Henna makes me happy because it is a part of my culture and symbolizes joy,” junior Tabeer Naqvi said. “My mom draws all my henna for me. She is really good at designs and she has a steady hand. My mom did all her own henna for her wedding herself.”

Although henna has been used since ancient times to color skin, the FDA only approves of henna as hair dye. The government’s directions for the use of henna may be because there are two types: reddish-brown and black. Reddish-brown is pure henna, but black has additional, often abrasive, unnatural pigments. Black henna has been known to cause acid burns, allergic reactions, and scars on the skin. Like black henna, white henna, which is commonly seen in pictures, is not true henna.

Despite governmental discouragement, henna has been embraced by pop culture. Henna appears to be a tattoo, but in reality is only a short-term stain, making it extremely appealing to flippant fashionistas.

[People] should do an authentic design while understanding the purpose it serves”

— junior Neeti Kulkarni

Globalization ushered the craft to the West, where it was quickly adopted and popularized by celebrities such as Madonna, Katy Perry, and Ariana Grande. By 2015, henna has spread to become a symbol of open-mindedness and self-expression across all cultures. In addition to traditional wedding and holiday celebrations, henna is used to decorate baby bellies and help cancer patients overcome hair loss with henna crowns. With its migration to a new area, the pure origins of henna may be overshadowed by thoughtless goals for fun or dress-up.

Naqvi explains her disappointment in people who don’t take henna seriously.

“They talk about cultural appropriation for a lot of other things, then they just wear henna for fashion. It is like they are completely ignoring my culture… Henna is very special to celebrating my culture and it shouldn’t be treated as just another accessory,” Naqvi said.

Because of the broad cultural background henna belongs to, appropriating the art form could mean offending at least eight distinct cultures. Modern henna etiquette means one must be cautious not of using henna, but copying original artwork that has become classical design to a religion or culture. Duplicating designs could be interpreted as a form of plagiarism or mockery.

“Henna should be approached from people of other cultures cautiously. I think that they definitely should do an authentic design while understanding the purpose it serves,” junior Neeti Kulkarni said.

Respect for henna and its traditions are key, especially during upcoming holidays. Henna will be used in the traditional way from Nov. 11-15, 2015 to celebrate the Indian festival Diwali.