With festival season in full swing, henna tattoos can be seen adorning the hands of festival-goers everywhere. While this trend has been popularized in Western culture, it carries a historical and cultural significance to people of Asian heritage, such as international graduate students Harshneet Singh and Shruti Gohil.
Singh and Gohil presented “Henna 101” to give other students a closer look at the art of henna to celebrate Asian American Heritage Month and henna’s significance to their culture.
Henna originated in the Middle East nearly 5,000 years ago, but in recent years, it has become a global art practice. Its temporary, do-it-yourself nature makes it an attractive option for those looking for a short-term accessory for any occasion.
“This is an ancient thing, more of a cultural thing practiced in India and Arabian countries mainly,” Gohil said. “Nowadays, in the U.S. people have started to use it because this a temporary thing, so it goes away within a week. For other tattoos, if it’s permanent, they stay longer, and you could get bored with the design. This is a different thing where you can just have it and if you like it, OK, if you don’t you can wash it off.”
Pakistani exchange student Samra Sahar said henna is a practice she became interested in as early as 10 years old. While drawing intricate designs along one student’s hand and fingers, Sahar made a connection between her love for art and design and her interest in henna.
“I liked it, and I just started to practice and learned how to do it,” Sahar said. “After that little phase, I had done it for a marriage ceremony. I had spent my whole night doing this.”
Each time she finished a design on a student, they thanked her for the new art that adorned their skin. One student returned a few minutes later to ask Sahar for more.
Sahar spent the remaining 1 1/2 hour practicing smaller henna designs on the students attending the presentation.
Singh showed students photos of his wife on their wedding day, explaining that the intricate designs can be time-consuming, especially for brides in India who cover much of their body in art as part of their wedding preparation. Although in Middle Eastern and Asian countries henna is commonly seen at religious ceremonies and weddings, it can be used for almost any occasion.
“It’s not just a religious thing,” Gohil said. “It’s not that specific that you can only use it in religious occasions, but it’s basically a sign of a good luck. Everyone wants their occasions to be blessed, so you can use it normally.”
Gohil presented more on the history and cultural significance of henna to inform other students on its lesser known uses. Besides as an accessory for religious ceremonies and weddings, henna is used for a number of other things including to celebrate pregnancy and as hair dye that doubles as conditioner.
Sahar described the modern use of henna as an accessory because, especially for girls, it’s used to “enhance their beauty.” The positive notions associated with henna, such as beauty and luck, make it essential to special occasions in Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
“In the U.S., it’s not a cultural thing, but for us, it’s a culture because at any wedding, any festival, if you don’t have henna you’re missing some special thing,” Sahar said.
Because of the growing popularity of henna, the production of premade kits — like Shelly Mehndi henna kits — make it easier for anyone to try their hand at the art, but Gohil advises those purchasing premade kits to be careful.
“This (henna paste) is made from a plant, and the leaves are made into a paste, but I’ve seen many companies add chemicals to their paste for a deeper color,” Gohil said. “So, one should watch out for whether it’s naturally made or not.”
For those wondering whether they should try henna, Gohil encourages everyone to try it because unlike other tattoos, henna is “sort of a fun thing” to try without the permanent commitments. Gohil believes anyone from any background who likes the look of it can sport henna.
As a child, Sahar found henna to be risk-free to try, and now, it is a hobby she regularly practices.
“It’s not a compulsory thing for people,” Sahar said. “It’s for those who want it, and for those who don’t want it, just skip it. If some people like it, they should try it because it’s not a permanent thing like a temporary tattoo, so it’s good motivation to try it.”