5,000-year-old tradition catching on in Westmoreland
- Merry MacKinnon
- The Bee - Features
Sometimes it just takes time...
It may be an exotic 5,000-year-old wedding tradition - but now, 'henna body painting' seems to be becoming an accepted part of local culture.
Originally, Arab and East Indian women celebrated their weddings by having their hands and feet ritually decorated with a natural dye called 'henna'. Now, at the Cypress Day Spa in Westmoreland, where Sanya Khan recently opened her Silk and Stone Henna Body Art studio, locals like Heidi McKay of Brooklyn pay Khan to paint intricate designs on their skin for all kinds of reasons, including just for fun.
'I wish I had had this done at my wedding,' says McKay, as she watches Khan squeeze a cake-decorating tube filled with henna paste and draw a fine black line on McKay's hand.
Khan explains that she mixes her own henna paste, which consists of dried henna leaf powder, tea, lemon juice, and eucalyptus and tea tree oils. Within 12 hours, the designs she paints turn reddish brown, and they remain on the skin for one to three weeks. Designs can wear off sooner if exposed to water - so Khan tells her clients who've had designs painted, for instance, on the backs of their hands, to wash only the palms of their hands.
Khan uses natural henna, which comes from a tropical plant - not to be confused with what is sometimes called 'black henna', which is adulterated with para-phenylenediamine, a synthetic black hair dye considered dangerous if used directly on skin.
Khan, who emigrated from Pakistan in 1982, started her Henna Body Art business eight years ago at Portland Saturday Market, but she had learned the skill of ornamenting skin with henna dye when she was a child. In her native country, henna is painted primarily on women's feet and hands, since women traditionally keep the rest of their bodies covered, as Khan continues to do herself.
But, in the United States, Khan has decorated American models for photo shoots, and even paints elaborate designs on pregnant women's bellies for baby showers and brides-to-be tummies, at bachelorette parties. 'It's for blessings,' she explains.
Men also seek out Khan's artistry, sometimes requesting custom work, or selecting designs - such as Celtic, that are less flowery and more masculine, Khan says. 'They like that it's temporary,' she adds.
The impermanence of the natural dye also helps convince mothers, whose children might be begging for tattoos, to bring them instead to Khan. 'I've painted two-year-olds to 50-year-olds,' Khan says.
Throughout the world, individuals are now being ornamented with henna. 'People think of it as a tattoo, and others are interested in the traditional aspects of it,' she observes. 'For us, the point of henna is it gives blessings to the bride, to the families, and to the people who do it.'