The art of henna and mehndi has been practised for over 5000 years across regions of Africa, Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, but there’s still some confusion around the two terms in the Western world. That’s why we’ve put together this in-depth guide to answer all your mehndi-related questions from its origins to the present day.
What is mehndi?
While the terms mehndi and henna are often used interchangeably as they both refer to the temporary dye procured from the henna plant (lawsonia inermis), there are subtle cultural differences between them.
Traditional body art
When we talk about mehndi, we refer to a type of temporary tattoo or body art drawn in beautiful, abstract designs on the arms, hands and feet. The mehndi mixture is made from a ground paste or powder from the leaves of the henna plant. While henna can refer to the plant itself, mehndi almost always refers to the finished product of henna used for the art.
What is henna?
Contrary to mehndi, when we talk about henna alone there are three things we could be referring to: henna is used to describe the flowering plant, the traditional ink dye made from the plant’s leaves or the practice of painting the temporary tattoo on the skin.
Etymology of mehndi vs henna
Origins of “mehndi”
Mehndi or sometimes “mehandi” is derived from the Sanskrit word “mendhika” and is the popular terminology across the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Hence, the term mehndi is associated with the Hindu community, forming an integral part of religious ceremonies and practices.
Origins of “henna"
In the Arabic world, mehndi is replaced by the more widespread term henna. It comes from the Arabic “al-hinna” which refers to the henna shrub. As you might’ve guessed, henna is a word that has been adopted by the Western population, but it’s also important to note that this terminology is also favoured by Muslim communities.
History of mehndi and henna
The henna shrub grows in the warm climates of Africa, Northern Australia and Southern Asia. The history of henna (and mehndi) goes back five thousand years with its long history of migration and intercultural exchange.
Originally, there wasn’t a distinction between mehndi vs henna as the dye hadn’t yet melded with cultural practices – at first, the leaves were used for medicinal and cooling purposes. But over time, henna became synonymous with cultural tradition, dispersing across borders and cultures, and this is when a distinction between henna and mehndi came into play.
Cultural significance and uses
Mehndi is an important part of religious culture and celebrations across Hindu, Muslim and Jewish communities. Festivals such as Eid, Diwali, and Karwa Chauth among many more are celebrated with the painting of mehndi.
Mehndi designs vary from region to region, culture to culture. Each design has its own cultural significance and meaning. For instance, African henna patterns incorporate natural emblems whereas Indian mehndi is associated with geometric and paisley patterns seen in bridal mehndi.
Mehndi fabric dyes
Mehndi is still used as fabric dye to this day – as they say, if it ain't broke don’t fix it. This natural dye can colour leather, silk and wool to achieve a range of different shades from a latte brown to red-orange. You can replicate this wide range of shades using mehndi for your hair too!
Mehndi hair products
There’s a rising demand for henna or mehndi for hair products. Primarily used in cleansing or henna hair dye products, they’re known to rejuvenate your tresses by softening the strands with organic vitamin E and antioxidants.
Mehndi for nails
Using mehndi or henna for nails is a growing trend due to its antifungal properties. Not only is mehndi stylish, but its botanical composition helps nail health and strength by fighting off fungal infection.
Comparing mehndi vs henna, you can see the terms are synonymous – but mehndi is more ingrained in the culture.