Mehndiquette: India

By Carey Reed Zamarriego

Mehndi drying. Photo by Kevin Reed.

Three hours have passed. The bride-to-be remains seated, her arms and feet are outstretched as four women continue to render an intricate design in henna paste on her limbs. Her backside is numb and she is noticeably uncomfortable. In response to her groans of discomfort, her aunts fireback: “beauty is pain.”

And so this Indian Hindu bride endures the exhaustive preparations for her five-day wedding. She’s not the only weary one, after hours spent at the salon getting hair and makeup done; sarees and other elaborate dress wrapped; and picking out jewelry, family and friends too tire out.

The entire supersized wedding whirlwind kicks off with the Mehndi (henna party), a kind of bridal shower two days before the wedding. Dancers in India traditionally wore mehndi to draw attention to their movements. Made from crushed henna leaves, which dye the skin, the paste is squeezed out from a tiny tube like that of a cake decorator.  The women on the bride’s side gather in a central location, either a family member’s home or a rented space, pad the floor with pillows, hire henna artists and spend hours getting henna-fied. In the past, both the fingertips and nails were coated with henna and left to dye as a kind of nailpolish. Today, the fingertips only, are covered in color.

Henna application.

The bride’s henna application takes about six hours and stretches from her fingertips to her upper arms and from her toes to her calves. Hidden in her design is the groom’s name, which he must find on the wedding night. The matriarch of the family pays for the bride’s henna, as well as that of all the other females. Designs range in price from $2-6 (100-300 rupees) for simple patterns to $10-20 (500-1000 rupees) for more detailed designs. There is a political art to choosing a design. No one is supposed to upstage the bride. Of course, those closest to her can get pretty decorative designs. But, if you are not one of the bride’s besties, opt for a low-profile, low-cost design. Find someone with a simple pattern, point and get the same.  The last thing you’d want to do is piss off the family’s matriarch.

Bride's mehndi application.

While waiting three hours + for the henna to dry, a mixture of lemon and sugar water is dabbed onto the mehndi to speed up the effects and make it last longer. The goal is to get a deep, burgundy color that should last at least two weeks. Henna pros will tell you to wait until the concoction dries and sloughs off on its own. However, after a couple of hours, it’s hard to fight the urge to rub it all off. Don’t use soap for 24 hours, even water is a no-no. And stay away from the sink, as clogging up your host’s drain with henna is another way to make a bad impression. Instead, brush the henna off outside, and use a moist rag to help with the lemony, sticky bits.

Mehndi before.

Mehndi after.

At another location within proximity to the women, the men eat, drink and even play cards while their ladies get beautified. They need to be close to serve as purse carriers and feeders for the females, who lose the use of their hands for several hours.

Just after midnight, the bride lays out newspaper on the bed before going to sleep.  The ladies wrap their arms in plastic or old socks. Tomorrow’s wakeup call: 7am. And the saying echoes: “beauty is pain.”

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