Kirsten Morrell – ‘An Eastern Voyage’

The Ancient and Modern Art of Henna

I swore I would never get a tattoo but henna is the perfect alternative. The tradition of henna on women is becoming a complex and sophisticated process.

Gilding, glitter, sifting and temperature control are not necessarily words that spring to mind when one thinks of having one’s hands painted.

Henna has been used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather and wool for many centuries.

It was used in ancient Egypt as a sun block for women, who would paint the whole of their face in order to preserve the skin underneath.

As early as the Bronze age, henna is recorded to have been used by women to adorn themselves —from the Mediterranean coast to Africa and India.

In India, during saints’ celebration days, like Diwali and Passover, even horses, donkeys and other favourite animals have their tails, hooves and paws painted. Battles, birthdays and indeed weddings have been celebrated and marked by this most curious of plants with its unusual antifungal qualities.

So henna is not just used to beautify, but there it is also a symbol of luck, happiness, prosperity and health.


My brother got married in India in November. We were lucky; we first headed to Karachi where my family narrowly missed a bomb explosion. Then we managed to organise four banquets and other numerous events over the month including three birthdays, a sung Sufi meditation at Quatar tombs, a Hyderabad Nickah, a farm stay in Delhi and being dressed in appropriate clothing.

My month in India was a balm to ease what had been fairly hectic year. I faced 2010’s challenges and dexterously dodged the shrapnel unscathed but rather exhausted. Looking forward to a month off and some rejuvenating travel I booked my ticket.

This was no little jaunt to Pakistan and India.

Weddings there are no small fizz of consent; they are bursting events filled with celebration, love, food, family, jubilee and perhaps even a fatted lamb or five.

The carpet was truly rolled out, my brother is ‘over the moon’ happy and so is his lovely new wife.

My sister-in-law’s Aunt Seeda organised the Mehndi evening — for women to talk, eat, dance and relax and have henna applied to their hands and feet. Seeda runs a specialized Hyderabad food catering business and her daughter Marvi designs clothes which are made on the premises by four tailors who used to work for Seeda when earlier she ran a large clothing shop.

Having had the brief from my sister-in-law about the appropriate dress codes for the month, I had packed an array of short sleeved/long sleeved cotton garments and Kate Sylvester dresses for such occasions. I’m not talking Salwar Kameez or sensible shoes. Karachi women dress beautifully with designer silk flowing dresses and custom made Saris, Jimmy Choo shoes, handbags and their own mix of cultural attire.

I thought I saw a bunch of fire crackers sitting in the corner of the room. But no, my eyes were not playing tricks: these were the commercial henna cones which three women had been hired to apply and adorn everyones’ hands and feet with. What fun! How tricky to hold a drink, eat Thai food, and …

dance while waiting for the stuff to dry…you get used to it,

…as the ‘darkening’ blend of sugar-lemon water is sponged on, also to aid the process. Listening to ‘Dacey Girl’ on the sounds and surrounded by kids dancing and women chattering I got my turn and my feet and hands were painted.

Because it was spring and because I had been waiting for the sunny weather for a while I chose to have a different flower pattern on each surface. The work was intricate and beautiful, the women were very fast, and had wonderfully steady hands. Watching the mud-orange material turn into a tapestry of motifs and patterns it was impressive to see these women deploy their fine skill, and my hands were complete with what turned out to be four very different, spontaneous designs inspired by the conversation that we had.

Kirsten guided the ‘mehndi’ artist to create a non-traditional and unique design.

Our ceremony was a relatively small and cosy affair. Henna artists these days make a good living in the lucrative wedding market that spans the summer and autumn seasons. Some Mehndi can have hundreds of guests, women queuing to have their hands and feet done before the bride and groom. There are henna forums, websites, even a henna webcam and you can get certified for natural henna arts. The trend has moved to the west, where brides-to-be decorate their limbs and even stomachs at baby-showers and the like. What a fun alternative to booties and bibs – getting your pregnant (or not) tummy adorned with swirling motifs and natural pretty patterns. It’s a nice idea to incorporate something different at these parties, which as we know are big business. A more ‘down to earth’ and organic experience can cost around $30

We were a cosmopolitan bunch at our Mehndi…

…with friends from England, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Singapore we crossed the line of tradition by letting our men folk come and drink at the bar while we chatted and danced. During the course of the evening there was a loud banging on the door. A group of local drummers and musicians had been rallied to come over and play for us on the street. It was a euphoric moment that signalled what was to come during the month. It was a gift from Seeda’s driver who had known my sister-in-law since she was a little girl.

We danced in the street with rose petals falling all around us…

…the mums, the dads, my brother, Juhi, me – and goats!

Goats in India are cute and anglonubian… mostly. They are not seen as pets for obvious reasons, sadly they are destined for the dining table. I used to show goats when we lived in Cornwall, anglonubians! There is something about their muzzles that makes me go quite goo goo.

Like a reclusive writer I can see myself retiring with a cottage not dissimilar to Hugh Fernley Whittingstall’s, breeding anglonubian goats, making soap, cheese and other luxury items. It’s a dreamy dream however, with a cost of which is out of my league.

So back to Henna and India, where they hope to eradicate poverty by 2020 and with a rapidly growing middle class, India was a blast. The people are confident, happy, generous and sophisticated. It was reassuring to find that women’s skills and talent are valued. Henna art is a good example of a blossoming sunrise industry! I think the chaos and contradictions will probably always be a personality trait of the country.


India is a fantastic place to travel, I made a pocketful of wonderful friends, had my eyes opened to another culture and was happily surprised that this eastern voyage for me was a wonderful balm.

Contributed By: Kirsten Morrell.

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