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  • Writer's pictureSpiced Cranachan

Our Painted Hands

There’s something about the art of mehndi that makes me think of snowflakes. It’s an ephemeral art-form, fleeting, and no two designs are identical. The process can be time-consuming, but the resulting pattern left on the skin will be intricate, striking and beautiful.

It’s something that can take years of practice to get right, and years longer to master. And while each design has the traditional markings, each will vary in form and composition, as if the artists pour their very personalities into the pattern.

It is a beautiful thing. And as a ceremonial art, it carries with it a sense of grandeur, as well as a rich history.

The origins of mehndi are an unknown, complicated by human migration and cultural integration. Historians do agree, however, that mehndi has been used in ceremonies for at least 5,000 years.

Cave paintings at Ajanta as well as the illustrations decorating Bodhisattvas indicate the use of mehndi in Ancient India almost 2,000 years ago, while the stains found on the mummified remains of pharaohs also suggests its use in Ancient Egypt. There is also evidence that the earlier civilisations of Babylonia and even Sumeria were using mehndi as part of bridal traditions. In fact, the earliest text connecting mehndi and bridal ceremonies is the Ugaritic myth of Baal and Anath, where Anath adorns herself with the decorative stain. This suggests mehndi was a tradition during the Bronze Age, as early as 3,300BC.

Today, mehndi is applied at wedding ceremonies and some festivals. The bride’s hands and feet are decorated – often up to the elbows and shins – and often a game made out of the husband’s initials, which can be incorporated into the bride’s mehndi pattern for the husband to search for later. And it is said that the darker a bride’s mehndi becomes, the more her husband loves her.

I wonder what the ceremonies were like generations ago, whether the young brides of Babylonia or Sumeria found joy in the staining and hoped for a darker colour. Civilisations rose and fell and some were forgotten entirely – but somehow little traditions like mehndi survived, kept alive within a number of cultures and festivals across Asia and North Africa.

As an Indian living in modern times, I do find it fascinating and almost comforting that I share something in common with the women of ancient civilisations. Our painted hands connect us, despite the passage of time, the destruction of war and the generations upon generations that lie between us.

“Art speaks the soul of its culture” – Abby Willowroot

From one mehndi ceremony, the bride will carry with her thousands of years of tradition. A simple pattern on the hand conveys all at once the history of the culture, the importance of ceremony and celebrating a marriage. It conveys the resilience of tradition and the beauty of ancient art. And, it will fade over time – only to be replaced by another pattern, at the next ceremony.

Art lasts despite the odds, and mehndi is no different.

(Photos courtesy of my sister, taken at her beautiful wedding)


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