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Henna has existed for at least 5000 years, and there is evidence of it starting close to 9000 years, and it has evolved and spread throughout the world. The paste originated in Ancient Egypt, but quickly spread to different parts of Middle East and Asia, such as India, Pakistan, and North Africa. Because of henna’s cooling properties, people in the desert used the paste to cool down their bodies. Once it hardened, they found the paste also left a stain where applied, which evolved into designs.
Often henna was put on the mummies of royals, such as Cleopatra, but the poor, who could not afford jewelry, would also use henna as their accessory. There shows the clear transition from a necessity and mechanism to a fashion statement in Ancient Egypt. More recently, the temporary tattoo became widely popular in the United States in the 1990’s, and have been portrayed on many celebrities in public, music videos, movies, etc. The West has also adopted the tradition of putting henna on pregnant stomachs and the heads of chemotherapy patients for luck and good alms.
Although henna in the United States may not be used religiously, a lot of the symbolism coincides with that of henna for Hindu weddings. Indian weddings shows symbolism through henna during mehndi rituals during the ceremony. Mehndi is the traditional pre-wedding ceremony within Indian weddings, and is similar, in many ways, to the Western tradition of Bachelorette parties. The Mehndi ceremonies are held the night before the wedding by the bride’s family and friends.
The ritual includes dancing and singing. Many of the songs includes good wishes to the bride and groom, but there are also many satirical songs about the groom or future mother-in-law. In a MIT documentary of a traditional Indian mehndi party, the bride’s friends and family sing “If your mother-in-law has a stomach ache, what should you do? Pack your bedding and walk out” and “If you can’t find a porter at the station, what should you do? Load the luggage on your fathers-in laws head and walk away.” While the women are singing, dancing and clapping in their sarees around the bride, a professional mehndi artist applies the henna to the bride’s hands and feet (Slyomovics). There are many symbols used in henna designs, picked by the mehndi artist, each with their own interpretation (Roome 2). Furthermore, depending on how long the henna stay, also symbolizes how long the marriage will last and how kind the mother-in-law will be to the bride (Slyomovics). Overall, mehndi is an important pre ritual to Indian women and the bride before the wedding. Many of the rituals within Indian weddings have the same notions as in western weddings, but many of the rituals are much more visual. Indian weddings are best known for the grandeur, traditions, grace, colors and almost carnival-type celebration” (Patwari). From the ritual of baraat at the beginning of the wedding, where the groom rides in on an elephant with his friends and family cheering around him, to aashirvaad, where the family sends good blessing to the bride and groom and shower them rice and colorful flower petals.
After the groom arrives, the family leads the bride and groom to the mandap, a canopied altar that represents the home the two will share. Next, the bride’s father pours sacred water in his daughters hand and then places the hand in the groom’s. Then, the sister of the bride ties the two sarees together with betel nuts, copper coins and rice. The ceremony symbolizes unity, prosperity and happiness and the knot of the sarees symbolizes the eternal bond of marriage. After is vivah havan where the priest lights the sacred fire or agni, which represent the divine spirit being present at the ceremony, and that he is blessing the groom and bride. The couple then circle the fire seven times while keeping in mind their Dharma, Artha, Karma and Moksha. After all seven rounds are done, Once the couple has completed the four rounds, there’s a race to see who will sit down first. It is said that whoever sits down first will rule the house (Patwari). These rituals represent hope, prosperity and love, but are expressed in a colorful and playful way. One of the central beliefs in Indian weddings is the notion that not only are the bride and groom are getting married, but that their families are being united (Patwari). A common value in India is that the children, and especially women, should have their decisions made for them by their family, which plays a very big role in the Indian caste system.
In medieval times, the parents would often not ask for consent from their child for arranged marriages, nor would they inform them about their partners, but over time the Indian society has developed and now most parents ask their children for consent. This, however, does not lessen the burden put on Indian singles, still trying to find a husband or wife. In an article written by Anita Jain, an Indian women, she she talks about how she is constantly pressured by her family to marry, and will regularly be sent email or text about new men her parents have found that are suitable for marriage. She says that she’s “been fielding such messages-or, rather, her father has—more and more… having crossed the unmarriageable threshold for an Indian woman, 30, two years ago… and that her parents have been trying to marry her off to, well, just about anyone lately” (Jain). This desperation for a suitable husband creates the notion that the marriage is not only a unity of the bride and groom, but a unity of the two families because of their constant involvement in their children.
Jain also mentions the fact that the sons and daughters would rather marry without love than have feeling like they are being “too picky” about their future partner. This idea of marrying without love could easily be influence by their parents, who mostly like had an arranged marriage as well. Furthermore, from the time their daughter or son is born, the parents are constantly thinking about their child’s marriage and future. This creates the belief that marriage is their karmic destiny, and that whether they agree to it or not, they will have to get married someday. This is why a some rituals are supposed to show how long the marriage will last and why much of the symbolism in Indian ceremonies are supposed to help the bride and groom for a long lasting relationship (Jain). Indian weddings and henna have influenced and has been much of society today. This includes influences from the Indian caste system, to henna being modernized and giving good alms to pregnant women and chemotherapy patients. Furthermore, Hinduism is yet another example of men being superior to women. An example is that women are not supposed to work during their period because they are perceived as too fragile and that women are too impure to be working. This shows a very clear contrast of how feminism has developed over the years in the United States and how slowly but surely we are working towards our goal of equal rights. However, in India there are not as many women to represent feminism and women’s rights. Women are becoming objects to their husbands. Also, henna has become a movement for women’s rights, with symbolism of hope and equality in some newer designs for henna.
Also, recently in the 21st century, a more bohemian look has become incredibly popular. Women will often relate henna as an interesting and avant garde rather than using it for religious intentions. From my sources I have gathered, I have gotten a lot of information about henna, traditional henna ceremonies and arranged marriages in India. I did research about the origins of henna and basic information of henna. This includes it’s popularization in the United States in the 90’s and how it has been integrated into tattooing the pregnant stomachs of women and the heads of chemotherapy patients. Furthermore, I looked into the cultural and religious uses of henna, and the symbolism incorporated into the henna for the traditional Indian wedding ceremonies. The pre-wedding, Mehndi, is where the henna is traditionally held, but also a time for the bride to share with her family and friends before the wedding. I also researched arranged weddings and feminism in India, which I can compare and contrast with the United States development in equal rights for both women and men. For the booth, I will be educating the participants about expansion of henna in the Middle East and later to the United States and the traditional wedding rituals, more particularly, Mehndi.
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