Henna is a plant from which a dye is made and used as a cosmetic art form. The decorating of skin with henna has been around for thousands of years. The application of henna as skin decoration originated in the Middle East and has been used in countries like Turkey, Israel, Egypt, India and Thailand. When applied to skin henna creates a temporary, tattoo-like stain that can be used to draw any type of design. In many countries henna skin decorations are part of a beauty ritual or while dressing up for a special occasion.
Arabic and Indian henna comes in the form of a powder or a paste that is made from the dried leaves of the henna bush. This plant grows best in very hot but dry areas of the world, which is why it would have been first used in Middle Eastern or African countries. When henna paste is applied to the skin, the hennotannic acid will dye it a reddish-brown colour. This acid also dyes hair and fingernails easily.
Most henna is applied to hands and feet using a henna or mehndi cone. These cones are made of rolled plastic that is taped closed with a small hole at the end. These are filled with henna paste and the design is made by squeezing paste through the hole and drawing on the skin. The paste stays on the skin for an hour or two and is taken off by hand or with a wooden stick when it's dry. The design will stay until the top layer of skin exfoliates. Applying oil can keep the pattern longer. How long the design stays can depend on the person's skin type and how much dye the skin absorbs.
One difference between Arabic and Indian styles is the name for this type of decoration. In Arabic it is called henna. In India and Pakistan it is called mehndi. The two cultures also have different styles of design. Indian mehndi has more intricate designs that cover the hands and feet and have thinner lines. Arabic henna is not as detailed and doesn't cover the full hands or feet. These designs take advantage of open space and often have vines, leaves and flowers in them.
Henna or mehndi is used especially for special events and celebrations. It has most popularly been used as part of wedding traditions in a variety of cultures. In India, as long as a bride has henna, she isn't to do any housework to keep the design looking beautiful. Women have also used it to ornament themselves for births, naming ceremonies, circumcisions or religious holidays.