What Do You Mean, No Paisleys? A Short History of Modern Indian Henna Designs
I had a great time participating in HennaCon, a conference for henna artists, in Camarillo a few weeks ago, and now at the Windy City Mehndi Meet in Chicago (and next week at the Polar Sling in Minneapolis!). One of my presentations covers the history of henna until the present day (an ambitious task, I know!) and I mentioned that the style that we think of today as “Indian” henna, with flowers, paisleys, scalloped fill, and other motifs stacked one after the other, is a modern innovation post-1970s. People were surprised to hear this, so I thought I’d share a few interesting early images of Indian henna. And I’m always happy to see more — readers, if you have any old photos lying around, or memories of henna in India before the 70s, send them my way!
It is not clear (to me, at least) how long henna has been done in India. Parashuram Krishna Gode, a Sanskrit scholar, suggested several identifications of henna in medieval Indian literature, although none are particularly certain (Gode 1948). Whether it predates the Muslim conquest of Sindh in 712 CE, the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, or even the arrival of the Persian Mughals in 1526, is difficult to say. I admit that I have no training in Indology so I am completely out of my field here, and I would welcome any assistance or constructive critiques.
|A Mughal Indian portrait, 1628, possibly of |
Mumtaz Mahal — note the hennaed
fingertips. In the Freer-Sackler Museum.
What is clear is that it was only after the Mughal arrival that henna took off in a big way. Henna had been used in Iran already for hundreds of years, as depicted in Persian art and literature, and in Persian paintings of the 13th through 17th centuries we see the development of henna into an elaborate art.
Mughal-era paintings from India often depict women with hennaed hands and feet, but unlike Persian paintings the henna is never shown in designs, but always dipped fingertips or solid palms and feet, as far as I have seen. This doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t doing designs — but if they were, they didn’t depict them.
Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, is often credited with the introduction of henna (or henna designs) to India, although this is impossible to prove. We do know that henna was being used in the royal courts of the time — Shah Jahan’s father, Jahangir, records in his memoirs that the hinna-bandi (the Persian term for the henna ceremony) for his youngest son, Shahryar, was held in the palace of his mother, Maryam uz-Zamani, in 1621, but provides no additional information (Rogers 1914, pg. 202).
Similarly, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s son, Dara Shikoh, had a hinna-bandi ceremony in 1633 where his hands were hennaed, but apparently without designs (Qanungo 1952, pp. 9-10), and the same was true of his brother Aurangzeb’s henna ceremony in 1637 (Sarkar 1912, pp. 58-59).
European reports of the time also observed that henna was done without designs. Francisco Pelsaert (1595-1630), a Dutch merchant, reported in 1626 that “the women employed for the purpose anoint the bridegroom, and rub his hands and feet with mehndi (a powder made into a paste), till they are quite red; this is supposed to have been sent by the bride, and the occasion is called Mehndi Day in consequence” (Pelsaert 1925, pg. 82).
|"Maiden with Parakeet" (detail), Golkonda|
(Hyderabad), 1670, currently in the Met.
Similarly, Niccolao Manucci (1639-1717), an Italian mercenary and writer who spent the last six decades of his life at the Mughal court, similarly wrote (Manucci 1907, pp. 340-341):
All women in India are in the habit of scenting their hands and feet with a certain earth [the translator’s note explains that the word is posso, literally mud], which they call mendy, which colours the hands and feet red, in such a way that they look as if they had on gloves.
All the descriptions of henna in India that I can find, from the 17th century all the way into the 19th and early 20th century, agree with the visual record — they describe henna applied solidly to the hands and feet without designs. For example, Jaffur Shureef, a Hyderabadi Muslim scribe, recorded the following in his book on Islam in India, written for colonial administrators (1832, pp. 102-104):
[For weddings, they prepare] the leaves of the Maynh-dee tree (Lawsonia spinosa, Lin. or Eastern privet), together with a little catechu, areca-nut and the stalks of betel-leaves: triturated with rice gruel, or water… The women call the bride to them, and with their own hands apply the maynh-dee to her hands and feet (i.e. to the inside of the hands and nails of the fingers, and to the soles of the feet and nails of the toes)… The next day, in the same manner as the huldee [turmeric] and maynh-dee came from the bridegroom's to the bride's, it is carried from her house to his [and] the bride’s-women come to apply maynh-dee to the bridegroom.
So when do we start seeing designs? Pictures of Indian henna that I've seen from the 1960s show mainly stripes across the fingers or feet (like alta), or large simple spirals. Some of the earliest records of patterns that I have been able to find come from the work of Jogendra Saksena, a Rajasthani folklorist, artist, and writer, whose sister was apparently a henna artist herself. I have not been able to find much biographical information about Saksena, but according to his own account he first began collecting henna designs at the end of 1948, when I assume he was a young man.
In 1954 he was appointed the first curator of the Sir Chhotu Ram museum in Sangaria, and he later worked for the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Delhi. He was also involved in the Albert Hall museum in Jaipur, where at his recommendation they installed a small gallery of Rajasthani henna designs (drawn on what look like ceramic model hands).
|Jogendra's sister hennaing his wife|
Prem. From Art of Rajasthan (1979).
If anyone goes to Jaipur — let me know if it’s still there! For all I know, Saksena himself may still be alive today (he would be at least in his late 80s).
In 1979, he published Art of Rajasthan: Henna and Floor Decorations, a book which he claimed he had waited to publish for thirty years; in it he recorded descriptions of how and when henna was done in Rajasthan, with various folk songs, anecdotes and proverbs… And, most relevant for our purposes, 16 pages of henna designs, mostly drawings but some photographs.
Unfortunately, he notes that “it is regretted that as most of the mehndi designs reproduced here have been collected from various sources, it is not possible to mention the place of their collection” (pg. 201). It seems that he re-drew them all for publication from various notes of his and other sources. All his sketches are dated 1976 (and some of them appeared in an earlier article of his, in 1977). So basically, any design in the book could have been recorded anytime between 1948 and 1976.
Saksena does divide the designs into ‘Old Mehndi’ and ‘New Mehndi,’ indicating that the 'Old Mehndi' designs were those he collected from 1948 onwards into the 1960s, and the 'New Mehndi' were those that he had collected recently (i.e. the 1970s). For him, the differences in design are that the old style encloses the palm in a square to cover the whole hand and fingers, while the new style covers only the centre of the palm, or even forms an assymetrical strip (pg. 78-79). In his description of ‘Old Mehndi’, he names a wide variety of designs, including:
- lahariya — ‘waves,’ a design with chevron, fishbone, or zigzag fill, symbolic of surging emotions and the joy of the rainy season
- chunari — ‘tie-dye,’ a design done in reverse with a lime resist
- ghevar — ‘disk-shaped sweet,’ a design centred around a circular shape, symbolic of the devotion to family shown during the Teej festival
- chaupar — ‘board game,’ a design featuring a checkerboard, symbolic of the meeting of lovers
|"Old Mehndi" designs from Saksena (1979), probably collected|
in the early 50s. He identifies them as: bichura ("scorpion," top left),
katvan phulya ("floral grid," top right); lahariya ("waves," bottom
left) and chah-dankiya ("hexagram," bottom right).
He does provide some examples of ‘New Mehndi,’ describing them as “trendy” or “modern fashion designs,” which include large paisley shapes, mandalas surrounded by empty space, and floral strips which go across the hand.
|An example of what Saksena terms a "New Mehndi" design,|
featuring a large keri (mango-paisley), late 70s.
Thus it seems that the style that we know today as ‘Indian’ begins to emerge only in the late 70s. By the 1980s, the henna patterns in photos and design books correspond to what we would expect from Indian mehndi — but the historical evidence reminds us to be careful in calling it “traditional” without any caveats. And of course, Indian henna (like all henna traditions) has continued to develop and evolve. A henna design that was top-of-the-line even only 15 or 20 years ago would today be seen as terribly old-fashioned.
|Henna art by Shenaz Hooda, featured in the film Painted Bride, by |
Susan Slyomovics and Amanda Dargan, 1990.
But to me, that’s the wonderful thing about henna, the ever-changing, always-beautiful, ephemeral art! It lasts for an instant, and its memories last forever. What do you think henna styles will look like decades from now? What will 'traditional' henna look like? What will the trendy "modern fashion designs" be? Only time will tell.
Gode, Parashuram Krishna. Studies in the History of Indian Plants: History of Mendi or Henna (Between B.C. 2000 and A.D. 1850). Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol. 28, 1948, pp. 14-25.
Manucci, Niccolao. Storia do Mogor, or Mogul India, 1653-1708 (translated by William Irvine). London, John Murray, 1907.
Pelsaert, Francisco. Jahangir’s India: the Remonstrantie of Francisco Pelsaert (translated by W. H. Moreland). Cambridge: W. Heffer, 1925.
Qanungo, Kalika Ranjan. Dara Shukoh. Kolkata: S. C. Sarkar, 1952.
Rogers, Alexander (trans.). The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, or Memoirs of Jahangir, from the Thirteenth to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Year of his Reign. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1914.
Saksena, Jogendra. Henna for Happiness. The UNESCO Courier, February 1977, pp. 18-22.
Saksena, Jogendra. Art of Rajasthan: Henna and Floor Decorations. New Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1979.
Sarkar, Jadunath. History of Aurangzib, Mainly Based on Persian Sources. Kolkata: M. C. Sarkar, 1912.
Shureef, Jaffur. Qanoon-e-Islam, or the Customs of the Moosulmans of India, Comprising a Full and Exact Account of their Various Rites and Ceremonies (translated by G. A. Herklots). London: Parbury, Allen, and Co., 1832.