Interfaith group to explore henna: temporary, natural body art

By: Sarah Wojcik | C&G Newspapers | Published June 5, 2019

 A henna ankle design by professional henna artist Hetal Parmar features flowers, leaves, vines and dots. The ceremonial form of art has historically been used throughout the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and northern Africa.

A henna ankle design by professional henna artist Hetal Parmar features flowers, leaves, vines and dots. The ceremonial form of art has historically been used throughout the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and northern Africa.

Photo provided by Hetal Parmar

 Henna paste, a temporary dye created from the lawsonia inermis plant, sets on the hands of a woman.

Henna paste, a temporary dye created from the lawsonia inermis plant, sets on the hands of a woman.

Photo provided by Hetal Parmar

METRO DETROIT — Henna is dye made from the plant lawsonia inermis.

The leaves are harvested, dried, sifted into a fine powder and mixed with water and other natural products, such as essential oils, to form a paste used to create body art most commonly on the hands and feet.

Henna is a rich part of Indian culture, and is a staple at weddings. It is also used during religious ceremonies, baby showers, parties and get-togethers.

Hetal Parmar, of Canton, is a professional henna artist who grew up in India.

When she was young, her mother applied henna on her and her sister, and when she was a teenager, she became interested in doing it herself. She started taking classes to learn how to make the paste, draw the designs, get the best quality and make the stain last longer.

“The first time I applied henna on my mom’s hand, she was so happy,” Parmar said. “In her time, they used to apply henna with a stick. It was a very old time, and they didn’t have any plastic materials.”

Now, Parmar uses plastic cones to apply henna. She orders the powdered leaves from India and begins the 24-hour process of sifting it through a cloth to get the finest quality, and adding water, oils, sugar and lemon juice.

“The henna plant grows in the hot climate. It needs, like, 120 (degrees Fahrenheit) to grow well. If the temperature is below, the quality of the stain doesn’t work really well,” she said.

The best location for the lawsonia inermis in India, she said, is Rajasthan, a state in northern India.

Once the paste is applied, it should set for at least two hours. The longer it stays on, the darker the stain. The stain turns from a pumpkin orange to a rich brown color. Depending on a person’s body temperature, henna tattoos typically last between 10 days and two weeks.

In Indian culture, henna is traditionally applied to brides because it is calming and cooling, and helps to settle the nerves. It also is a part of the beautification process.

“Some people believe the darker the stain, the more the husband or fiancé will love you, so the bride wants it to be really, really dark,” Parmar said. “We also like to write the fiancé’s name in the henna, and on the first night, her husband has to find where his name is hidden.”

Each artist has their own style. Parmar applies henna freehand, but she also incorporates custom requests when asked.

“In our culture, the groom used to come on the elephant to marry the bride, which is why we draw an elephant in the bride’s henna,” she said. “Nowadays in India, the groom comes on the horse. My  husband came on a horse to marry me.”

She said other common designs include horses, peacocks and mangos.

Shama Mehta, a member of the Sri Venkateswara Temple and Cultural Center in Novi, said henna has been used as a ceremonial form of art throughout the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and northern Africa.

“The patterns and designs actually are very unique. If you go back in history, henna is unique to geographic locations,” Mehta said. “Moroccan henna is distinctly different from Indian, which is distinctly different from Arabic styles.”

Besides temporary body art, she said, henna is used as a hair dye and a deep conditioning treatment. It also has medicinal properties.

Mehta, who is of Indian heritage, said her first exposure to henna was at weddings.

“Henna is not just for women. Men apply it too, and the groom actually also applies henna on his hands,” she said. “It could be something intricate or just the palm or bride’s name. During bridal henna parties, men in the party who want a little something could get a symbol of their favorite sports team.”

In India, she said, many leading henna artists are male. Historically, the cultural reasoning was that women should not be in houses of people they didn’t know, and it was easier for men to travel, she said.

“I started applying it when I moved to North America,” Mehta said. “I’m in no way a professional, but I found it very calming. Just the process of applying it is very therapeutic and really centers me.”

Mehta will discuss henna traditions and will offer interested participants a selection of henna designs for their hands 7-9 p.m. June 6 at the Sri Venkateswara Temple and Cultural Center.

The free program, presented by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, is open to the public. Advance registration is required online at www.detroitinterfaithcouncil.com.

The Sri Venkateswara Temple and Cultural Center is located at 26233 Taft Road in Novi.