Mehndi, or henna, is the art of decorating one’s hands with a staining plant extract, a kind of freehand temporary tattoo. You see it in the Middle East and southeast Asia (especially the Indian subcontinent), and the tradition is most commonly part of a wedding’s festivities: As in the U.S., you and your mother/sisters/aunts/friends have been doing a lot of preparation leading up to your wedding — the mehndi ceremony forces everybody to sit still and do nothing for a while.
Mehndi paste is made from the ground leaves of the henna plant. You can actually mix your own if you have the leaves and a rough mortar and pestle. But it’s much easier to buy mehndi cones (kind of like tiny baker’s piping bags) — not only are these ready-made, but the fine tips are better for detail work, and the paste contains additional oils for a really dark, long-lasting result. You let the paste dry on your hands for as long as possible (overnight, even), and the warmth of your skin will activate the staining agent.
Typical patterns include geometric designs, flowers, peacocks, paisley — if you are getting married, your two palms may depict a man and a woman facing one another in profile, or contain your husband’s name. The designs may be as intricate (and continue as far up your arm) as time and patience permits.
This particular photo is from my own wedding.