Henna is More Than a Tattoo

My mum’s wedding henna

Henna is typically known as a temporary tattoo. Now, you can get everything from golden henna to silver henna. However, to an Indian living in America, henna is a way for me to connect with my roots.

Ever since I was five years old, I got henna done every year during Karva Chauth (an Indian festival to celebrate marriage). I remember sitting with the other kids and watching all of our moms get their henna applied. The older children all had to keep us busy so we did not smudge anything. But after the moms were finished, we got to get henna on our hands.

In middle school, I got a design that laced up to my pinky finger. When we came home, my mom put lemon juice and sugar to help the color deepen. At school the next day, my friends were intrigued by how the color did not wash off. I faced a different reaction from my teacher. He was teaching us about something we would later learn in high school and another student blurted, “That is so weird.”

My teacher proceeded to say, “Hey, I’m not the weird girl with writing all over my hand.”

I remember wanting to blurt out how it was not writing; it was henna! It was an important part of my culture. But, I just pushed my sleeve over my hand. I was not really excited about henna the next year or the year after. My fascination was sparked again in high school. In fact, instead of being ashamed or embarrassed of my henna, I began to love it more passionately.

Since I was older, while the moms were doing their henna, I helped out in the kitchen making chai and taking care of the babies. One of the grandmothers began to talk to me. She asked me to sit with her and she said she remembered the time when she had her henna ceremony before her wedding. I picked up a crying baby and began to feed him while I sat in awe as she told me about her experiences with henna. She told me that the more your husband loves you, the darker the color of your henna will be. In fact, girls write the names of their husbands’ on their wedding day henna, and if he finds it, then it means he knows your heart.

We looked at pictures of generations of brides with henna: her daughter, daughter in law, her grandchildren. Henna is a tradition celebrated for over 5000 years in Pakistan, India, Africa and the Middle East. When I was living at home, I never really appreciated times like these like I did now. I looked at the people I was around, the food I was eating, and the music that was playing. When we all came together to get our henna done, we forgot about work or school the next day. We just admired the beauty of rich tradition that tied us all together.

Although none of us were related, our culture is stronger than blood. I never realized how henna was more than a “tattoo”. It was representative of my acceptance for my culture and I would never pull my sleeve over my hand again. Even though I am not married, henna still represents love. I began appreciating and loving the Indian part of my identity and not wanting to cover it up.

My middle school teacher’s comment does not matter too much to me now as it was so long ago. But he inspires me to share something important to me and my heritage, because there are even MORE people who want to understand and love another tradition. Henna is a way for me to explore the patterns of my cultural past. It is a way for me to share how much India means to me.

This past fall, on Karva Chauth, I got a call from an Aunty saying how much the children missed me and how Dadiji (grandma) brought pictures to show me. People think that as soon as you move away, you lose your culture because you are not living with your parents anymore. But my roots are something that will ground me wherever I go. When I got my henna done growing up, I learned what it meant to be an Indian girl. I learned that we are the epitome of strength and the backbone of a household. People call that backwards, but I think it is beyond impressive. The aunties I grew up with, worked jobs and also raised their children. Family values, respecting those older to us, treating others as our family, and treating our guests with dignity akin to a God, are so incredible. I learned all of that through the five hours of just getting my henna done and I aspire to be like my role models I have grown up with.

I cannot go with my family to get my henna done because I am living away from them. But even in college when I go with my friends to get our henna done, I know I will be connected with my family. No matter how far the distance, we will all be admiring the same beautiful adornment that taught us all to love.

My henna at university

CEO of Muskaan, world traveler, fiction writer, American born Punjabi. Insta- tasha_2398

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