Symbols of celebration

Renu Lal

Photo By Larry Dalton

Liv Tyler does it. Demi Moore does it. Even Prince and Madonna do it. Oh, and let’s not forget about all those folks at the Whole Earth Festival. We’re talking about mendhi, which is the Hindi word used to describe the art of painting henna designs on the body. In 1974, Renu Lal, a local mendhi artist and the owner of Hair Formations, left New Delhi for the United States. After spending several years teaching, Lal found her passion in henna. Nowadays, she can be found applying lace-like flowers and vines and intricate mandalas to people in search of spiritual enlightenment. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call (916) 483-7077 or visit

How long have you been giving henna tattoos?

You know, for a long time—since I was a child, let’s say, in New Delhi, India. And in India, you just go and pick the leaves. It’s a fresh plant, like a shrub. And you just pick the leaves, and it stains your hands. And then you can grind the leaves and make it into a paste, so you can apply it.

Are the henna leaves the only ingredient in the paste?

I mix some tea in it and natural juices, so it is really nice and cooling. It smells very good, earthy, healing. You leave the paste on for as long as possible. I mean, you can leave it on overnight because I seal it. I have a special sealer. I seal it with honey. Once I have sealed the henna, you can work all day. It’ll crack some with your body heat and the movement, but it won’t just come off.

Who taught you how to do henna?

I picked it up. When I was little, I didn’t understand the meanings or the spirituality of henna. I always knew that this was something that intrigued me. It’s very feminine. They would take me to weddings to do the henna. It’s just because I could draw, you know, freehand.

In India, why do people wear henna?

Basically, henna is a prayer. You wear the prayer. It’s symbolic for women to do henna. Mothers, daughters, sisters—you know—grandmothers. Women do henna for chanting. This is just like chanting. See, symbols are so important in your life. That’s why henna is called a language of symbols. It is also called an unspoken language of a woman. You don’t have to say anything; you just have to put it on.

Do men ever wear henna?

Men only wear it when they get married.

On what occasions would women wear it?

See, there are certain stages in a woman’s life when she should do henna. We have to do it when we get married. And then, when you get pregnant, you do the henna. It’s like an invitation to other women. You know, like if you have a henna party, we automatically assume that you’re celebrating conception. You see, there’s a spiritual bonding between a mother and child.

At weddings, what body parts is the henna applied to?

We always do the henna on the hands and feet. That is customary. Women do henna the day before they get married. The henna comes from the husband’s family. They’ll put the designs with the meanings in it. So, at the time of the wedding, the bride will walk barefoot so the husband can see the designs. It’s like a form of communication. Then, they will leave the henna on, and the brides are not supposed to do any housework until the henna comes off.

Do you do a lot for weddings?

Yeah, I have to do a wedding tomorrow.

How long will a henna tattoo last?

It should last one to three weeks. The longer you leave the henna paste on, the darker the henna becomes. See, it’s natural. If you take it off after you leave, you will still have a little stain, but not as deep as we would like it to be.

Where do you get your henna?

I import it from India. Very few people have the real stuff. What they have here is not real henna. They call it the black henna, but henna cannot be black. It should be a sienna or a brilliant reddish-brown. Black henna should be avoided; it’s like a skin cancer. I could show you horrible pictures that you would not believe.