The History of Henna

The word Henna has its origin in the Arabic word Al-Hinna. In botanical terms it is Lawsonia Enermis, a plant which grows to be 4 to 8 feet high in hot climates and can be found in Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Persia, Morocco, Palestine, Yemen, Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Senegal, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and India. The leaves, flowers and the twigs of the plant are ground into fine powder containing natural dying properties called tannins; the powder is then mixed with hot water.

The East African coast famously known as Swahili coast has been a centre of trade and culture for over a thousand years. Known as Zanj to medieval Arab traders, East Africa had strong mercantile ties with the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, and even China. The Kilwa Sultanate controlled the Swahili coast throughout the Middle Ages, and once it broke up in the 17th century, imperial powers moved in Zanzibar became part of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698, and a British protectorate in 1890.

The population of the Swahili coast, therefore, is a diverse mix of ethnic and cultural groups, including: Arabs, especially originating in Yemen and Oman; Afro-Arab families, formed as merchants intermarried with local women; Africans, including those living in slavery until its abolishment at the end of the 19th century; and Indians, including Hindus, Muslims, and some Parsis.

However the history and origin of Henna is hard to trace with centuries of migration and cultural interaction it is difficult to determine where particular traditions began. There is very persuasive evidence that the Neolithic people in Catal Huyuk, in the 7th millennium BC, used henna to ornament their hands in connection with their fertility goddess.

Ancient and Traditional, Henna has been used for centuries for body decoration. People all over the world continue to use henna, primarily for cosmetic purposes. However, in countries where henna is rooted in historical tradition, members of the working class more commonly apply henna for medicinal and healing purposes, as well as connection to Spirit.

Throughout time henna has been associated with special celebrations. Betrothals, weddings, the eighth month of pregnancy, the birth, the 40th day after a woman gives birth, naming ceremonies, etc, are all events celebrated with henna. Eids, and other religious holidays are also occasions to be hennaed. A common practice seen in Tanzania mainland, Zanzibar Island and in the Islamic world is the pre-wedding tradition of ‘Night of Henna’ parties.

In the past, the bride’s henna was traditionally shown off after the wedding in a ritual known as ntazanyao “tips of her toes”, which began the fungate also known as seven-day honeymoon. Traditionally, at the ntazanyao the bride’s beauty was ‘displayed’ with all her henna, including the soles of her feet; she had to sit motionless, with her eyes closed, to her guests’.

There are different styles of henna whereby, Arabic henna designs are abstract and less dense with designs featuring graceful, usually large, Floral and vine patterns on the hands and feet. Indian mehndi involves fine, thin lines for lacy, floral, paisley patterns with lines and dots; dense patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins. African henna patterns, usually simple, bold, large geometric shapes and designs with abstract symbols.

Henna decorating will survive in traditional uses within specific ethnic cultures and within various communities in different parts of the world. The richly beautiful art of henna knows no boundaries in culture, ethnicity, gender, religious or spiritual beliefs. In its many forms, henna decorating is truly a gift of beauty, touch and trust.