A Pakistani mehndi is both an elaborate temporary design drawn in henna on the hands and feet, as well as the actual process of creating the art on the night before a wedding. Although several Middle Eastern and Asian cultures embrace mehndi designs, Pakistani mehndi is considered the most intricate and takes the longest time to apply. The practice of applying mehndi designs is most often associated with marriage ceremonies, but it also can be done purely for aesthetic purposes. The normal color of henna is a shade of brownish red on the skin, but it can be made lighter or darker, allowing for a range of depth in mehndi artwork.
In Pakistan, a traditional marriage ceremony is an event that can last four days or more. The night of mehndi, as the gathering at which the application of the henna is performed, usually falls on the second day of the festivities and one day before the wedding itself. The process commonly involves only the bride and groom but also can include close friends or other family members. The hands of the wedding couple are elegantly painted on this night to act as a sign of their union.
The actual designs of Pakistani mehndi are very detailed. Instead of opting for large blocks of color or geometric symbols, they are frequently composed of complex patterns of lines, symbols and sometimes pictures. Areas of a single color are often filled with small designs and other patterns. It can sometimes take more than two hours for a mehndi artist to complete just one side of one hand.
There are different meanings for Pakistani mehndi designs. A sun in the palm of the hand symbolizes the mind, for example. There also are different designs to represent health, wealth and love. The exact meaning of some designs is strongly dependent on the meaning it has to the person receiving it.
Mehndi that is worn as fashion does not always have a distinct cultural meaning and instead bears a greater resemblance to tattoos. These types of Pakistani mehndi can be anything from plants or animals to words and can be done up the entire length of the arm or across the back. Mehndi, which also is called a henna tattoo, has spread in popularity around the world, partly because of the temporary nature of the designs, with most of them only lasting from four to six weeks.
The material used to create mehndi is called henna. It is a mixture of crushed leaves, oil and boiling water and is mostly purchased in a premade bottle that can be used to draw the designs on the recipient. Coffee or tea can be added to henna to make it appear darker, like the ink of a permanent tattoo.