The story behind the image: Mehndi

Mehndi/Henna applied to the hands of an Indian bride

One of the exciting things of living in Vancouver is that you get exposed to a vast variety of different cultures.

When shooting ethnic weddings, I find it important to have an understanding of the meaning and cultural background of the various aspects of the ceremony. Not only does it help take better pictures by knowing what to look for, and demostrates respect for the clients and their culture - you often time learn some very cool things along the way.

Take the "mehndi" (or "henna" as it is often called) that is applied as part of an Indian ceremony:  The history of henna is intimately connected to the flow of human movement. Henna likely originated in the Middle East, possibly in Egypt. Archaeological evidence shows mummies dating back 5,000 years with henna-covered toenails. For the Egyptians, it is assumed that henna was part of the ritual preparation for the afterlife—body art supposedly smoothed the journey ahead. The Mughals brought henna to India in the 12th Century A.D. It evidently caught on, because by the time the 1600s rolled around, henna-covered hands were commonplace in India.

And at that time, it was usually the barber’s wife who would apply henna to women. Paintings from the era show most women depicted with henna on their hands and feet. And while the English word “henna” traces back to the Arabic word for the plant “hinna,” most South Asians are more familiar with its synonym: the word mehndi. But those aren’t the only words for the reddish-brown paste: In Kerala, they call it mylanchi; in Konkani, it’s meti. And Tamils refer to henna as mayilainandi or marudhaani. In fact, the the use of henna is so widespread that there are more than 60 names for it in 43 languages.

Henna was a traditional folk art, and in some cases henna actually replaced jewellery for families that couldn’t afford jewellery as gifts, so the henna designs sometimes emulated bangles and rings.

Henna is typically used in Hindu and Muslim celebrations. There are also other myths surrounding that reddish-brown tattoo. The most popular beliefs are the deeper the color, the stronger the bond between bride and mother-in-law. With henna on her hands, the bride doesn’t have to do any household work — she is pampered and cared for.

Every family has different oral traditions about the meaning of henna. However, as most marriages were traditionally arranged, the housework exemption is important in that traditionally the bride goes to live with her in-laws after marriage. This exemption from housework allows her to bond with her new husband and family. This tradition is also followed when a woman is hennaed during the childbirth time, to allow her time to bond with her infant child.

Another legend has to do with the groom's name being incorporated into the bride's mehndi designm and having to find it later: If the groom is unsuccessful in finding the initials he gives his bride some token. It also means that the bride will be the dominant one in the marriage.