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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

The history of henna

4 March 2016
Luize Lazdane takes a look at the origins of Henna tattoos and symbolism found in different motifs and patterns. She follows the journey of Western holiday makers in the 1970s, shedding the light on the rising popularity of henna in Europe and North America.


They can be seen on girls’ bodies during most summer festivals or maybe someone has brought it back as a souvenir from their holiday in Bali. Certainly, henna tattoos have been booming as a beauty trend in the Western world. Henna has even been integrated in the most intimate ceremony – weddings.

The tricky and complicated decorations are mysterious and intriguing – what lies behind them? Manifold is exploring the hidden meanings of henna and decoding the myth.

There is a wide debate as to where henna (in hindi-mehndi) originated from – Arabic countries, Egypt or Pakistan. Just like us, people in Ancient Egypt used to dye hair and paint their nails with henna paste – which colours everything brown and red. It seems through henna’s travels all over the world, the deeper meanings of it have been left behind.

But it is so much more than just a powder and paste, it is also part of traditional parties and ceremonies.

People who lived in hot areas of Asia used henna to cool down, discovering the beautiful various patterns that were left on their bodies. As patterns wouldn’t fade for another three weeks, and a new beauty tradition was born.

Then the tradition continued its course in India – one of the main countries that henna is associated with now. Through time, it acquired such enormous significance that it was and still is a measure of a woman’s creativity.

Natural themes are most common -almost every animal or tiny flower can carry meaning. Gorgeous flowers represent joy, a simple zigzag shows rain (but signifies fertility) and a cheeky lizard is a seeker for enlightenment.

Henna has primarily been used during festivities and weddings as a way of making the sacred visible, and communicating with a higher power.

An old wives tale says that the darkness of the tattoo colour defines the love of the husband and mother-in-law. Sometimes the paste has to be left on the skin overnight to soak into the skin for longer effect.

As a fun game during the party part of the wedding, the groom has to find his initials that are hidden in the mehndi design on the bride’s arms. The tangled lines and spirals of the tattoo don’t make this task easy.

After the ceremony, there is no cleaning or cooking for the bride at the husband’s house until the colour of mehndi fades away. Same goes for brides from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The wave of henna popularity in western countries started in the 1970s when air fares became more affordable. Many people were now able to holiday to India (and other Asian countries) and brought henna back with them.

‘More recently celebrities have started wearing henna and this has an impact on the younger generation. Henna has really gotten a popularity boost,’ says Catharine Hinton, henna artist and blogger on hennacat.com.

‘Twenty years ago there weren’t many opportunities to get it done anywhere, so I decided to order a henna kit and started my body art journey,

‘My service grew in popularity and people started to ask me to do it at parties, events and weddings,’ Hinton says. Now with numerous henna studios across the country, others have followed in Hinton’s steps and opened their own businesses.

Western women who like glitz and glamour make their arms sparkle by adding glitter and different coloured gems.

‘For me and the customers it’s the science of henna, the community, celebratory and historical aspects that constantly keep us on our toes.’