The natural cooling properties of the Lawsonia inermis, or the henna plant, made the paste extracted from its leaves an obvious choice for people living in the Middle Eastern and African desert and folk from the subcontinent braving Indian summers. The dye was typically applied on the palms and feet, with the cooling sensation lasting until the stain remained on the skin. Eventually, the paste was reworked into decorative patterns for aesthetic purposes, including by the original beauty buff Cleopatra. Henna is also used in the hair, to work as a natural air conditioner for the head, as well as to hide greying roots.
As the designs of the temporary tattoo became more and more elaborate, henna application became something of a profession, with many women training in the intricate art form. Flowers, birds, curlicues and butterflies are some common elements, although larger icons such as palanquins are also sometimes traced out.
In India, henna goes by the name mehendi, and forms a major part of wedding festivities, with the bride typically hiring two to four women to painstakingly apply the dye from elbow to fingertip and knee to toe. The husband’s name is often hidden within the intricate pattern for him to find later on. Although typically used by women, men have been known to tattoo the initials of their betrothed, too. Mehendi is also applied during the country’s major festivals, notably Diwali and Karva Chauth. The same goes for Arabic henna, which is applied during Eid festivities and other celebratory occasions. Rumour has it that the darker the stain, the more a person is adored.
The temporary body art was adopted by people in the West in the 1990s, and has been spotted on celebrities such as Madonna, Yasmine Bleeth and Gwen Stefani. No longer restricted to the palms and feet, henna can take the forms of a bracelet cuff, arm band or back and stomach tattoo.
The intricate pattern has also inspired many art and design projects, including a massive mural ceiling at The St Regis in the Maldives and the façade of Namaste Towers in Mumbai.
Henna has had its share of controversies, too – from reports of spurious varieties that can cause alarming skin conditions to the total ban of black henna across the UAE.