The painting of the bride’s hands and feet with henna (a process called mehndi or mehendi in some cultures) is such an important part of wedding traditions in certain parts of the world that no set of wedding photos is complete without some closeup shots of the intricate designs that have been dyed into the skin. The pattern on every bride’s hands is different, and the best wedding photographers find ways to highlight what makes the work on each soon-to-be-married woman unique and special. Because Washington, DC is such a diverse and cosmopolitan city, we have had numerous occasions to take pictures of brides who have decorated their hands with henna, and we always look forward to new opportunities to honor the craftsmanship that has gone into the designs.
We both came to wedding photography with some knowledge of the marital tradition. Anji was familiar with mehndi because she has attended numerous South Asian weddings in which the bride’s hands and feet had been decorated with henna. Pete was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mauritania, a country in West Africa in which body art with henna plays a very important cultural role. As we took pictures of more and more marriage celebrations, though, we were surprised to learn just how rich the history of this nuptial tradition is.
The use of henna in the painting and decorating of hands and feet originated somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa and has been around for at least 5000 years — Egyptian mummies have been found with fingertips dyed orange by henna. That seems to be as much as anyone agrees on, though. Which culture started using it for beauty and which one perfected its use is the subject of considerable debate. Some think that the wedding tradition might have sprung up independently in several areas where the plant grows naturally. Even we could not agree at first! Pete insisted that it was Middle Eastern in origin, whereas Anji maintained that it came from India.
Regardless of where it started, the practice of dyeing a bride’s hands before her wedding is now common throughout North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, as well as in any country to which members of those communities have migrated. Throughout those regions, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians hold “Henna Nights” in the buildup to the wedding. Though the exact pre-matrimonial traditions differ by culture, the celebrations always involve the application of a henna paste to the hands and feet of the future bride. Sometimes it is the female relatives of the bride and/or groom who do the honors. For example, it is common for a happily married female relative of a Saudi bride and for the future mother-in-law of an Algerian woman to apply the henna. In India, by contrast, the mehndi is almost always done by a specialist. In some countries, such as Morocco, many women in the bride’s and groom’s families will also have their hands and feet dyed with henna. In other places, it is the bride alone who has those decorations applied. In some parts of the world, the groom’s hands and feet are also decorated. In others, again, only the bride receives the honor.
The styles of the henna artwork also vary widely and depend quite a bit on how the henna paste is applied. In South Asia, for example, mehndi specialists put the henna paste on a bride’s hands and feet with a large funneled plastic dispenser that is similar to a cake icing bag. The result is designs with lots of intricate, lacy lines. In West Africa, on the other hand, the designs tend to be blockier and more geometric in shape. This is because the use of the “resist” technique is much more common in that region. Brides getting those designs have the pattern created using surgical tape before henna paste is packed around their hands and feet.