"[Henna] is practiced in many parts of the world. From the deserts of North Africa to the villages of northern India, magnificent designs blossom and vanish upon the hands of women as they have for thousands of years." - Loretta Roome
Henna is the world's oldest cosmetic, used over 8,000 years ago to dye hair in North Africa and 6,000 years ago to dye the mummie's toenails. Though when most people think of henna they think of the tradition that began over 2,500 years ago in India where brides are adorned with henna. Because henna use is so widespread, there are many different traditions througout the cultures that use it. In almost all these cultures it is an art that women do for each other to bless and protect.
After I found my medium of henna in 2003, I began to research it's use and the traditions. Catherine Cartwright, an amazing henna artist herself with many books of designs that I love to use, is also a prolific writer and has a detailed account of the henna traditions to honor pregnancy. Here is an exerpt from her article The Functions of Childbirth and Postpartum Henna Traditions:
"In rural Rajasthan, ritual actions surrounding childbirth include henna applications and rangoli. A woman in the eighth month of her first pregnancy has an Athawansa ceremony. She rubbed with scented oils, bathed in perfumed water, and ornamented with henna, on her hands, feet, up to the wrist and ankle, in a manner similar to her wedding
henna. She is dressed in new clothing and ornaments. She is seated on a cauki, ceremonial wooden seat. Women friends and family fill her lap (god) with sweets, fruit, and a coconut. This ritual is god bharna, or the filling of the lap. Women ornament the floor with rangoli called “Athvansa-ko-cowk” (Saksena 1979:121). The patterns used are
acknowledged to bring health, protection, and luck to the new mother and her child by inviting the aid of supernatural forces. Primiparous women are statistically most at risk for postpartum depression, and prenatal screenings for depression are often carried out in western medicine at this period (Stern and Kruckman, 1983). The eighth month ritual may serve to establish the woman’s “social safety net” within her community, who will help her through birth and reintegrate her after childbirth. The similarity of this henna to her wedding henna may remind her of the joyous occasion of her wedding, and raise her spirits if she has become anxious. Women are reminded that pregnancy and birth are the successful fulfillment of their marriage. At birthing, the mother is ornamented with henna before being escorted out of the delivery room. After the woman has given birth, she must have all of her fingernails and toenails hennaed in a ceremony known as Jalva Pujani, as henna is considered a medium for purging the pollution incurred from the process of giving birth (Saksena 1978, 75). "