Having Fun With Henna

When the leaves of the henna plant (lawsonia inermis) are dried and mashed, the resulting paste produces a redish-orange dye commonly known as henna (in Arabic) or mehndi (in Hindi). For thousands of years, cultures in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have used it as a way to decorate and color their skin, hair, and even fingernails.

In India, rarely will you see a wedding where the bride isn’t adored with an intricate henna pattern all over her arms and feet - like the two pictures below of my cousin Heeral on her wedding day (photo credit:Focus Tree Photography).

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When applied with a cone (like frosting a cake with a pastry bag) henna is wet. As it dries over several minutes (or hours, depending on the pattern), it becomes hard and crumbly to the touch. The longer the paste remains on the skin the darker the stain, which ranges from orange to a deep red or maroon. It can last for many days, fading as you tend to your daily activities.

Growing up in India, I remember having henna sleepovers, where us cousins or friends would do each other’s henna after dinner. Then we’d tie our hands in plastic bags once the design was sufficiently dry. After a restless night of sleeping like this, we would wake up in the morning, eager to scrap off the dried henna crumbs, and see who had the best color.

But because henna patterns are intricate, requires a bit of skill to apply, and take a long time to dry, it isn’t something many of us tend to do often in our daily life anymore; especially not when said life includes wiggly children.

It is intimidating, as one of my friends put it. Like something that should only be saved for special ocassions and done by experts. Well, I’m no expert and even with the daily chaos of life, I am here to tell you that if you want, you can have loads of fun when you mix henna and children (not literally of course).

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You can find henna cones very cheaply and easily if you live near an Indian grocery store like Patel Brothers. They sell ready-made cones, as pictured above, with the added benefit of having the henna paste mixed in with some special oils to help enhance the stain without too much waiting around. They are small enough (and again cheap enough) for kids to play around with as Asha often does (ex: draw a shape or simple pattern on a cardboard with a pen, and then trace it with henna cone).

Chances are good that most first (or second, or third) tries will be quite bad. Just know that it takes practice to handle and squeeze the cone just so, so that henna flows out evenly instead of in blobs. Once they get better, they can start practicing on their own hand or find a willing friend.

It is also fun to break the rules a little bit and opt for henna patterns that are more whimsical and fun. For instance, while Asha loves the traditional designs, her brothers always ask for really off-the-wall stuff. Arjun’s most recent request of “an ant hill with ants, ladybugs, caterpillars, dung beetle, and tiger stripes” gave me a pause, but then I thought why not! It was a nice way to break the gender barrier since henna is usually only applied by women and girls. Why should boys have to miss out!

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After I made the above design on Arjun’s palm, he played carefully for about 15-minutes until the henna was dry to the touch. You can also use a hair dryer to speed up the process. Then, we used a butter-knief to scrap off the crumbs after which he could play as he pleased. The key is to resist washing hands for as long as possible. The longer you wait before the water touches the henna, the darker the color (which tends to intensify over the next few hours even when you do wash hands). So, make sure children use the bathroom before you start.

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Ajay who is 2-years-old, will ask for henna too when he sees his siblings getting it done. I’ll draw a little something like a big letter A which he basically messes up by touching in under 2-minutes. So then off we go to wash it off in the sink. But still, even in that short of a time, he usually has a light orange stain which lasts for a couple of days making him very happy.

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Making henna part of our play (even if it is a dung beetle) has made it so easy to share traditions that otherwise wait around until there is a big celebrartion in the family. Henna has also helped my children understand how different cultures all around the planet can have similarities. Inevitably, they talk about it with their friends, who too get eager to participate the next time I get a henna cone. I can’t think of a better way to share things that make us unique.

Chika GujarathiComment