The Journey of Mehendi

Photographs by Kazi Ahnaf Aquib

Henna, more commonly known as mehendi, is a temporary form of skin decoration, most popular in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa as well as expatriate communities from these areas. Mehendi designs are usually drawn on hands and feet, where the colour will be the darkest because the skin contains higher levels of keratin. The mehendi leaves contain a reddish orange dye pigment called lawsone, which is used to dye skin, fingernails and hair. It is usually dried and ground into a powder, which is mixed into a paste and applied using a variety of techniques.
Women love the mehendi. Be it the smell, the colour or the ability to draw simple as well as intricate patterns and designs, it appears to be a fascinating form of art for ladies. It has been and is still considered to be a ritual to apply mehendi on various occasions including Eids, weddings and other events that calls for cultural celebrations.
A few decades ago, people used to apply mehendi differently than they do now. The mehendi paste used to be applied directly onto the palm or fingernails. Toothpicks or small sticks used to be employed to draw up patterns and designs, but that too on rare occasions. Another popular design was – covering the fingertips, both inside and out. Most of them used to be satisfied with the circles or other basic geometric shapes drawn on their hands and feet. It was all good as long as the colour came out well – the darker the colour the prettier they look.
The scenario paints a different picture today. We are too busy to gather mehendi leaves, crush and grind them to make a paste and then apply mehendi and leave it on for several hours before it dries. Luckily enough, ready-made mehendi is available at supermarkets, that too, in cones or tubes and other tools. The most common and useful tool is the cone – made of rolled plastic, similar to a cake decorating tube, with a tine hole at the end. The benefit of such an application tool is that incredibly fine lines can be achieved without much hassle and without tiring your hands.
Not only does it save time, but the way the mehendi comes out from tubes inspire a lot of people to make more detailed designs. From simple geometric shapes to twisted and tangled patterns the evolution of mehendi art is remarkable.
Not that mehendi leaves are not available, but due to an increase in consumerism, tube mehendi is preferred. Not only the medium, but the designs – which is used to be simple flowers or patterns resembling various household items has changed. Previously the designs used to be lucid, like vases exemplified by the famous ‘kolka’ design and so on. But recently, the designs have emerged to be more complex and detailed which definitely reflects the aggregation in terms of patience but also reflects the complexity that has weaved its way to our thinking process.
Because we are so busy playing different roles throughout the day, we choose shortcuts when it comes to easily available commodities. How often do we give it a thought that the mehendi consumed from stores contain chemicals which might trigger allergic reactions?
Nowadays, mehendi cone contains chemicals, so if you’re allergic or your skin is sensitive, then check a little amount of mehendi on your palm before making the whole design. If it gives a burning sensation or it itches, trashcan it immediately!
Do not apply mehendi right after waxing. The skin pores are opened at that time, exposing it to the chemicals. Wait a day or two to be on the safe side to avoid skin irritation and damage.

To ensure that the mehendi left its darkest possible colour, women used to utilise household items. Some of the popular measures taken are as listed below

  • Adding “Khoyer” paste to the mehendi paste to ensure that the mehendi stain would turn out to be darker than usual
  • The addition of dense tea and/or lemon juice is still a popular concept today and its addition enhances the colour
  • Specific patterns are drawn on the palm using “chun” and then mehendi is applied. After drying and removing the mehendi, the colour appears on all places except the areas where the “chun” was applied
  • After the removal of i, a few drops of mustard oil was applied on the decorated area and left overnight so that it could do enhance the colour.


With Eid around the corner, you can perform a little DIY task to ensure that you get fresh  mehendi which is both dark  in colour and long lasting.

  • Sift the powdered mehendi to get rid of chunks.
  • Add 1/4th cup of lemon juice or water to the mehendi and whisk until you have a consistent mixture.
  • Cover the mixture using a plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature for 24 hours.
  • The dye will be separated into a layer above the rest of the mehendi mixture as it matures. Grab a spoon and scoop that out.
  • Place the mehendi into a plastic cone. Twist the top of the cone and secure tightly with a rubber band.
  • Roll the rubber band downward until the mehendi is in contact with both the tip of the cone as well as the base of the rubber band. This ensures that the mehendi dispenses properly.
  • Clip the tip of the cone with a nail cutter so that the mehendi comes out easily. Just remember to make very small cuts so that you don’t overdo it.
  • And there you go!