Henna Past and Present

History and Meaning

Henna (mehendi in Hindi) is a red dye that has been used for centuries to decorate the body and colour hair. It is made from the finely grinded leaves of the henna bush (lawsonia inermis). Henna art has been practiced for over 6000 years in countries in Northern Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan. Henna patterns have even been found on mummies of ancient Egypt. Henna artworks are made to celebrate the different stages in the lives of women, such as birthdays, marriage and pregnancy. Or as a blessing for joy and prosperity. Besides its decorative function, henna was also practical for women in the desert. Henna provides cooling and offers protection from the sun. Feet and hands coloured by henna are not tanned by the sun. When a henna artwork fades it leaves tan lines, an extra decoration!

Every country has its own henna traditions and customs. In Islamic countries, the use of henna is a homage to the prophet Mohammed, for both men and women. Artworks are made on weddings, religious celebrations and births. In India, the use of henna is a significant part of wedding ceremonies. Nowadays, henna is getting more recognition in Western countries, and henna art is being offered at festivals and in workshops.


There are three main trends within contemporary henna art: Indian style, Arabic style and Moroccan style. Each trend is different from the other, and every form or figure has a different meaning. Nowadays, styles are becoming more and more influenced by each other. Forms are being combined, thereby creating new styles and patterns.

Indian Style

The Indian style is characterized by finely detailed patterns, with graceful images of animals, plants and flowers. Indian bridal henna is exuberant and covers the hands, arms, feet and legs, sometimes up to the elbows and knees. The pattern on the hands is often in mirror image, with the hands together forming one whole.

Arabic Style

The Arabic style is characterized by exuberant flowers and fine leaves. Arabic style is often less detailed than the Indian style. Therefore, Arabic henna patterns are maybe more difficult to master, since mistakes are easily seen. Deriving from Islamic ideology, animals and people are never depicted.

Moroccan Style 

The Moroccan or Fez style is mainly characterized by geometric shapes. This makes this style very different from the Indian an Arabic style. Moroccan henna patterns show many stars, crosses, zigzag shapes and blocks, which all have a different meaning. Abstract plants and leaves are also depicted.