Clutching tubes of henna paste, four women created intricate designs of swirls, loops, flowers, teardrops and feathers onto the stretched out hands and fingers of strangers — passing along a tradition that started thousands of years ago.

“Henna is all about celebration and love and community. That is why we do this,” Bhakti Madhav said.

On Tuesday, Madhav, a librarian, brought the age-old tradition to the Decatur Public Library in a “What is Indian Henna?” program. The free program is part of the library’s outreach services aimed at exposing people to the local and global arts, culture and interesting figures.

The tradition of applying mehndi — better known as henna in the United States — dates back 5,000 years to southern Asia.

“In the desert, the women colored their hands, feet and hair with henna because it was a cooling agent. That is the main reason it originated. It is most prevalent in India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa, places with hot weather,” Madhav said. “In the time of Egyptians, Cleopatra put henna on her hair to cool herself.”

In the past two decades, the form of body art gained popularity in the West. Today, henna artists attend street fairs and festivals and mehndi kits are found on the shelves of craft stores and hobby shops.

“This is something we’ve always talked about doing. We would see henna artists on trips like to Gatlinburg, but we didn’t know what they used in their henna paste. This seemed like a good time to do it,” said Gloria Stevens.

Created from dried leaves of the Lawsonia inermis tree and mixed into a paste, henna temporarily dyes the skin shades of brown, red and orange. According to legend, the deeper the color, the more a person is loved, Manjeet Kaur said. The art serves an integral role in religious celebrations and weddings.

“We aren’t taught how to do mehndi, it is just something you learn because it is always done,” Madhav said. “The day before a wedding, the families of the bride and groom will meet for a fun day. Many of them will get mehndi done. Sometimes the artist will hide the initials of the bride’s husband in her design and he is supposed to try to find them.”

For Anjana Henry, who received a design of vines and leaves that snaked up to her fingertips from Purnima Gosain, the experience brought back memories of her childhood.

“I remember seeing this done as a little kid, but it has been so long,” said Henry, who is originally from Singapore. “It brings back a great memory.”

For more on the library’s programs, visit or 256-340-2441. Twitter @DecaturLiving.
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