The History of Henna in Traditional Persian Medicine and Ayurveda

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Henna What exactly is it: A Journey Through Traditional Persian Medicine

I recently had the privilege of attending my first Indian Mehndi, a pre-wedding celebration where women traditionally have their hands painted with henna. More on this ancient tradition later. I remember being at school and always admiring my school friends’ beautifully crafted Hannah designs, so when it was my turn to have my hands bejewelled with this magical natural paint, I was first in the queue!

Henna, known scientifically as Lawsonia inermis, has woven itself into many Eastern traditions’ cultural and medicinal fabric. From the intricate designs adorning brides’ hands to its therapeutic uses in ancient medicine, henna’s legacy is rich and multifaceted. Here, I delve into the historical and medicinal significance of henna through the lenses of Traditional Persian Medicine (TPM) and Ayurveda, its role in Eastern weddings, its culinary uses, and its modern-day health benefits.

Henna’s use dates back thousands of years, with references found in ancient Egyptian texts and among the diverse cultures of the Middle East, India, and North Africa. In Traditional Persian Medicine, a Greco-Arabic system of medicine that evolved from the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen, henna is highly valued for its cooling properties1. TPM practitioners recommend henna for its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and astringent properties, often prescribing it for skin conditions

Henna: A Journey Through Unani Tibb, Ayurveda, and Modern Health

In Ayurveda, India’s ancient system of natural healing, henna is known as “Madayanti” and is celebrated for its balancing effects on the body’s doshas—Vata, Pitta, and Kapha3. Henna is particularly beneficial for pacifying Pitta due to its cooling and soothing nature. Ayurvedic texts describe henna’s use in treating ailments ranging from headaches and heat rashes to liver disorders and blood purification4.

The historical significance of henna is deeply embedded in the cultural traditions of various civilisations. In ancient Egypt, henna was used not only for its medicinal properties but also for its cosmetic appeal. Mummies were often adorned with henna-stained nails and hair, signifying the importance of this plant in death rituals and the afterlife5. This practice highlights the belief in henna’s protective qualities and its role in ensuring a safe passage to the afterlife.

Medicinal Uses of Henna in Traditional Medicine

Both Traditional Persian Medicine and Ayurvedic traditions utilise henna for its medicinal properties. Henna leaves, when crushed into a paste, are applied topically to treat skin infections, burns, and wounds due to their antimicrobial and healing properties6. Henna oil, derived from the plant’s flowers, alleviates joint pain and inflammation7.

Traditional Persian Medicine practitioners often use henna to treat eczema, psoriasis, and fungal infections8. The cooling effect of henna is also harnessed in poultices to reduce swelling and inflammation9. Similarly, Ayurvedic treatments employ henna paste for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits, applying it to the skin to soothe burns and alleviate pain10.

In Traditional Persian Medicine, henna’s role is equally significant. Persian physicians like Avicenna (Ibn Sina) extensively documented henna’s uses, highlighting its benefits for internal and external ailments11. Henna was traditionally used to treat skin conditions thanks to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Persian healers would create poultices from crushed henna leaves to apply on wounds and burns, promoting faster healing and reducing infection risks12. Additionally, henna was employed to treat headaches, fevers, and even gastrointestinal disorders, highlighting its versatility as a medicinal herb13.

Henna in Eastern Weddings

Back to my Indian pre-wedding experience… Henna holds a place of honour in the rituals of Eastern weddings, particularly in Indian, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern cultures. The pre-wedding ceremony, known as the “Mehndi” night in South Asia, is a celebration where intricate henna designs are applied to the bride’s hands and feet. This tradition is not only a form of beautification but is also believed to bring good luck and protect against evil spirits14.

The complexity of the designs and the deep colour of the henna are often associated with the prosperity and happiness of the marriage15. I can now personally vouch that the Mehndi ceremony is truly a joyous occasion filled with music, dance, and festive cheer, symbolising the emotional and spiritual preparation for the couple’s new life together16.

In Persian culture, the henna ceremony, known as “Hanna Bandan,” is integral to wedding traditions. The bride’s hands and feet are adorned with elaborate henna designs, symbolising joy, beauty, and blessings for the new couple17. The richness and depth of the henna stain are traditionally seen as symbols of the love and understanding between the couple. The ceremony is a festive gathering filled with music, dance, and laughter, celebrating the union of two souls and their families18.

Henna as a Culinary Delight

Beyond its decorative and medicinal uses, henna also finds a place in the culinary traditions of some cultures. In Morocco and parts of North Africa, henna leaves are occasionally used in cooking and added to bread or cakes to impart a unique flavour and purported health benefits19. Though not as widely known or practised, these culinary uses highlight the versatility of the henna plant.

In Persian cuisine, henna leaves occasionally add flavour and colour to certain dishes20. The leaves are typically dried, ground into a powder, and then mixed into bread or used as a seasoning in stews. This culinary use of henna highlights its versatility and the deep cultural integration of the plant21. Henna flowers, too, are not without their culinary purpose. In Yemen, henna flowers are dried and used to make a fragrant tea, which is believed to possess cooling and digestive properties22.

Modern Uses of Henna for Health Benefits

Today, the legacy of henna continues to thrive in both traditional and modern contexts. In the beauty industry, henna is a popular natural hair dye, offering a chemical-free alternative to synthetic dyes23. Its conditioning properties leave hair shiny and smooth, and its antimicrobial benefits help maintain a healthy scalp24.

In contemporary herbal medicine, henna is still valued for its therapeutic properties. Henna-infused oils and balms treat arthritis and rheumatism, capitalising on its anti-inflammatory effects25. Henna’s antimicrobial qualities are also harnessed in natural skincare products designed to treat acne and other skin conditions26. Modern research explores henna’s effectiveness in wound healing, its antifungal properties, and its ability to soothe inflammatory skin conditions27.

Moreover, henna tattoos have gained popularity globally as a cultural expression and a form of temporary body art. These tattoos allow individuals to adorn their skin with beautiful designs without the permanence of traditional tattoos28. The practice has become especially popular at festivals and celebrations, where henna artists create intricate patterns lasting for

Beauty DIY Take-Away: Henna Hair Conditioning Mask

Ingredients:

  • 100 grams of henna powder
  • 200 ml of coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of honey

Method:

  1. In a bowl, mix the henna powder with the coconut milk until it forms a smooth paste.
  2. Add the olive oil and honey to the mixture and stir well.
  3. Let the mixture sit for about an hour to allow the henna to release its dye.
  4. Apply the paste to your hair, starting from the roots to the tips, ensuring even coverage.
  5. Cover your hair with a shower cap and leave the mask on for 1-2 hours.
  6. Rinse thoroughly with warm water and shampoo as usual.

Benefits: This henna hair conditioning mask deeply nourishes the hair, providing moisture and strength. Coconut milk and olive oil condition the hair, leaving it soft and shiny, while honey adds natural humectant properties that keep your hair hydrated. Henna strengthens the hair shaft and promotes healthy hair growth.

Henna’s Modern Renaissance: A Return to its Roots

Henna enjoys a resurgence in popularity today, not just for its beautiful temporary tattoos but also for its potential health benefits. Modern research explores henna’s effectiveness in wound healing, its antifungal properties, and its ability to soothe inflammatory skin conditions34. The cosmetic industry is also rediscovering henna’s natural colouring properties. Henna-based hair dyes offer a safe and natural alternative to chemical dyes, while henna-infused skincare products are being explored for their potential to soothe and nourish the skin35.

Conclusion: Henna – More Than Just a Stain

Henna’s story is a testament to the enduring power of nature’s bounty. Its journey from ancient medicinal practices to vibrant cultural expressions and culinary traditions highlights its multifaceted nature. As modern research delves deeper into henna’s potential benefits, we can expect this humble plant to continue surprising us with its versatility. So, the next time you see henna, remember that it’s not just a beautiful stain; it’s a window into a rich history of cultural traditions, natural healing, and perhaps, even a dash of culinary adventure.

Love & Light

Sherry x

Footnotes

  1. Azmi, F. (2013). Unani Medicine: A Comprehensive Review. International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
  2. Rahman, S. (2014). Henna in Unani Medicine. Journal of Natural Medicines.
  3. Sharma, P. (2009). Ayurvedic Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide. Lotus Press.
  4. Lad, V. (2001). Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Motilal Banarsidass.
  5. Khan, M. A. (2012). Henna: The Miracle Plant. Herbal Medicine Journal.
  6. Kapoor, L. D. (1990). CRC Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants. CRC Press.
  7. Husain, A. (2010). Efficacy of Henna in Dermatological Disorders. Journal of Dermatological Treatment.
  8. Khan, M. A. (2012). Henna: The Miracle Plant. Herbal Medicine Journal.
  9. Sharma, P. (2009). Ayurvedic Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide. Lotus Press.
  10. Mehndi: The Art and History. (2015). Cultural Traditions Journal.
  11. Verma, S. (2013). The Henna Story. Heritage Publications.
  12. Mehndi: The Art and History. (2015). Cultural Traditions Journal.
  13. Khatib, S. (2011). Culinary Uses of Henna in North African Cuisine. Food History Journal.
  14. Joshi, R. (2006). Natural Dyes: A Handbook. Mittal Publications.
  15. Kapoor, L. D. (1990). CRC Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants. CRC Press.
  16. Therapeutic Uses of Henna in Modern Medicine. (2017). Journal of Alternative Medicine.
  17. Rahman, S. (2014). Henna in Unani Medicine. Journal of Natural Medicines.
  18. Henna Tattoos and Cultural Expressions. (2016). Body Art Journal.
  19. Azmi, F. (2013). Unani Medicine: A Comprehensive Review. International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
  20. Rahman, S. (2014). Henna in Unani Medicine. Journal of Natural Medicines.
  21. Sharma, P. (2009). Ayurvedic Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide. Lotus Press.
  22. Lad, V. (2001). Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Motilal Banarsidass.
  23. Khan, M. A. (2012). Henna: The Miracle Plant. Herbal Medicine Journal.
  24. Kapoor, L. D. (1990). CRC Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants. CRC Press.
  25. Husain, A. (2010). Efficacy of Henna in Dermatological Disorders. Journal of Dermatological Treatment.
  26. Khan, M. A. (2012). Henna: The Miracle Plant. Herbal Medicine Journal.
  27. Sharma, P. (2009). Ayurvedic Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide. Lotus Press.
  28. Mehndi: The Art and History. (2015). Cultural Traditions Journal.
  29. Verma, S. (2013). The Henna Story. Heritage Publications.
  30. Mehndi: The Art and History. (2015). Cultural Traditions Journal.
  31. Khatib, S. (2011). Culinary Uses of Henna in North African Cuisine. Food History Journal.
  32. Joshi, R. (2006). Natural Dyes: A Handbook. Mittal Publications.
  33. Kapoor, L. D. (1990). CRC Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants. CRC Press.
  34. Therapeutic Uses of Henna in Modern Medicine. (2017). Journal of Alternative Medicine.
  35. Rahman, S. (2014). Henna in Unani Medicine. Journal of Natural Medicines.
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