Thursday, 27 October 2011

Elephant No. 25: Mendhi

In a bow to my East Indian heritage, today I decided to try mendhi—also known as a henna "tattoo". Despite the fact that I'm half Indian, I've only ever had mendhi on myself once, and that was because a local museum was offering free mendhi as part of an exhibition. My father gave me a large bag of henna years ago, so perhaps it's about time I tried it for myself.

Henna has been used to adorn the body since the late Bronze Age (1400–1200 B.C.). Originally associated with fertile young women, the use of henna as body decoration evolved into a ritual activity known as the Night of the Henna, which is still celebrated in various forms around the world.

The Night of the Henna developed primarily in countries where henna grew naturally. Celebrated on the eve of a wedding, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus all held special ceremonies in which both bride and groom were decorated with henna.

In addition to weddings, religious holidays and other important events were celebrated with henna decoration. The practice even extended to the adornment of favourite horses, donkeys and dogs, whose hooves, paws and tails were hennaed. As one source says, "When there was joy, there was henna."

In India, mendhi is applied in intricate patterns to the hands and feet of brides the night before the wedding, with the groom's initials often woven into the design. This ritual is usually part of a traditional celebration and, in some parts of India, the groom is painted as well. In Rajasthan, for example, the designs painted on men are just as elaborate as those painted on women.

In addition to using henna as a form of decoration, Muslims use henna as a dye for hair and beards. This is done in emulation of the prophet Mohammed, who dyed his beard with henna. Mohammed encouraged Muslim women to dye their nails with henna as well, as a way of distinguishing their hands from those of men. As a result, you will often see the hands, fingernails and toenails of Middle Eastern women dyed with henna. Highly elaborate mendhi patterns are also common.

Middle Eastern mendhi design

In Africa, many cultures use henna as a form of body adornment. Henna has ritual purposes as well, and is believed to confer protection when certain symbols or designs are drawn.

The henna paste used in mendhi tattooing is usually made from the powdered leaves of the henna plant. You can either make your own paste—made by mixing henna powder with a mildly acidic binder such as lemon juice or tea—or purchase henna paste in premixed cones. In rural India, women grind fresh henna leaves and mix them with oil. Although this is a less refined form of henna, the resulting tattoos are darker.

To create a mendhi tattoo, henna paste is applied to the skin with a small cone (similar in concept to an icing bag), or with implements such as a brush, a toothpick, or a small plastic bottle with a metal tip, known as a "jac" bottle. The painted area is then wrapped in plastic, medical tape or tissue to lock in body heat. This helps to intensify the colour. The wrapping is worn for as long as three to six hours, or even overnight, then removed, along with the remnants of the henna paste. Shorter times are also possible, but the longer you leave the paste and/or wrapping on, the darker and more lasting the tattoo will be. 

When the henna paste is first removed, the colour is a dark reddish brown. Within a day or so, the colour will darken as it oxidizes. The design can last up to three weeks, depending on the type of paste, the wearer's skin colour, and where it was applied on the body. Palms and the soles of the feet are favourite places, because their lack of keratin makes the henna react more strongly, and the thickness of the skin allows the henna to penetrate more deeply.

Indian mendi for hands and feet

For today's mendhi elephant, I opted to make my own mixture, and to use a jac bottle to apply it. The henna paste should be mixed the day before you plan to use it, in order for the stain-inducing molecules to release from the powder. I took dry henna powder, a bit of sugar, and enough lemon juice to create a toothpaste-like consistency, then left it to stew overnight.

The sugar is not necessary as part of the dyeing process, but gives the paste a stickiness that helps to prevent the henna from flaking off too quickly as it dries. You could dab the design with a sugar and lemon mix afterwards if you prefer, but I figured I'd muck up the design if I tried that.

It takes very little paste to create a henna design. I made far too much of the stuff, using only about a teaspoon or so to paint the entire design. Then again, I suppose it's always better to have too much than too little. 

I had no real idea what I was doing, so I started by drawing an elephant on the back of my left hand.

After that, I filled things in with flowers and leaves, with no clear pattern in mind. As a beginner, it might have been a good idea for me to sketch something first, but I was a bit impatient to get started. I had originally wanted to incorporate a bit of traditional Indian paisley, but for some reason I've never been able to draw paisley, so I decided against that particular trauma.

The process is simple, and if you have a bottle or cone with a small nozzle, the henna goes on easily and in relatively uniform lines. I would maybe go for a finer application tip than 0.9 mm next time, but this worked out okay. The paste will obviously have a tendency to glop if you squeeze too hard, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it.

The only other thing to look out for is a tendency to smear the design while it's still wet. The lines dry rapidly, but I did smear a bit of the leaf design between my fingers. Luckily, it comes off easily—as long as you don't wait until it dries, when you'll be stuck with whatever smears you've made.

The paste starts out a dark green, then changes to a greenish-black as it dries. Heat is henna's friend, so I used a hairdryer to set the design and help it dry, then wrapped my hand and wrist in plastic wrap for about half an hour. Steaming or warming the pattern after the henna paste comes off will also darken it.

After that, I just let it flake off over the next few hours. You're apparently never supposed to use water to remove henna, as this tends to exfoliate the skin, taking the design with it. I was tempted to pick at it after a while, but I somehow managed to keep my paws off. That being said, it really did take hours to fall off. Must be the sugar I added to the paste, because I don't remember the museum mendhi taking this long.

When the henna first comes off, the design is orange—on me, really pale orange. So pale I can't photograph it. Over the next few days, it will darken to a deep reddish brown—or so I hope. I'm not sure why it's so pale, since I did everything the way it's supposed to be done. Oh well. Maybe I'll try it again sometime. Maybe not.

Ideally, I should keep it away from soap and water for 24 hours, but I definitely like to bathe daily, so that's not happening. It should ultimately last about two or three weeks before fading entirely.

Unless it fades by tomorrow morning.

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of the most impressive parts of many Indian festivities is the sight of richly decorated elephants.

Festival elephants are often painted first in bright colours with water-soluble paint. Once painted, they are dressed in heavily embroidered headgear, blankets and other accoutrements. Finally, they are decked out in jewels: ornaments for their tusks and tails, belled anklets, necklaces and whatever else can be added to an elephant's body. The final touch, if the elephant will be ridden rather than led, is often an elaborate howdah, sometimes with an embroidered umbrella.

Elephants at the Jaipur Elephant Festival

Nowhere are decorated elephants more celebrated than at the Jaipur Elephant Festival, held each spring in Rajastan. The festival begins with a traditional procession of decorated elephants through the streets of Jaipur. Once they reach the stadium where the Festival is held, the elephants parade up and down as though on a catwalk, apparently enjoying the attention as much as the crowd enjoys the display. The Festival also includes elephant beauty contests, an elephant tug-of-war, and even Holi (the throwing of coloured powder at one another) from an elephant's back.

Another jawdropping elephant spectacle is held in Sri Lanka each July, during the Festival of the Tooth—sometimes known as the Festival of Buddha's Tooth. Contained in a special box, the sacred relic is paraded through the streets of Kandy on the back of an elephant. What makes this particular festival so unusual is the nighttime Perahera procession, featuring elephants illuminated with fairy lights.

Perahera elephants during the Festival of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

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