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My Omani Henna Experience

Posted by on 26 August 2008

DH and I were invited to a wedding in The Sultanate of Oman last January. I typed the draft about the henna night right after we came back to Malaysia but totally forgot about it until today.

The application of henna as a temporary decoration on the hands and feet of the bride is an important part of Indian, Malay and Arab weddings. According to Wikipedia, in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan, the groom is expected to have it done as well. In Malaysia, the most that Malay grooms ever have is on their fingertips. And not every groom does it.

For Malay brides, however, the tradition is so deeply ingrained, that no wedding seems complete without it, even if it’s not a compulsory thing to do. It’s also a definite must for Indian brides.

In Malaysia, henna can be applied at the fingertips only, but it can be as intricate as the photos in this site.

The henna night I attended in Oman was very unforgettable indeed, for good and bad reasons. Read on…

Held at the bride’s home, the all-ladies affair started around 6 pm. I felt so honoured to have been invited, as the henna party was limited to the immediate family and very close friends and relatives of the bride.

Two henna artists made magic with tiny cones of henna paste, expertly drawing intricate freehand designs on the guests’ fingers, hands, arms and feet, with the area of coverage depending on the guest’s personal preference.

henna artistry

The henna artist working her magic on one of the guests’ hands

The ladies sat and talked, sipping tea and exchanging gossip as they waited for their turn. Those who already had their turn sat with their arms outstretched, to avoid having their clothes stained by the henna. Even little girls as young as 3 or 4 years old patiently sat down to wait for the henna to dry. One lady took some food from her plate and fed her friend who was having her arms decorated up to the elbows. There was music, there was dancing. Omani ladies sure know how to party!

When my turn finally came, I excitedly put my hand on the special pillow and let the henna artist swirl the dark brown paste into tiny flowers, vines and leaves. The lines were very fine and no two designs were alike. I was so excited, I felt like a bride myself!

My hands, nails and fingers done, I sat down and started the long wait for the paste to turn into a pale green colour, signifying that it has already dried.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Omani henna artists now add a certain chemical to the henna paste to make the colour turn dark faster. Traditionally, henna would have to be left on overnight in order to achieve the desired dark red-brown colour. With the addition of certain chemicals, the same colour can be achieved in about an hour. The downside? Not all skin types take kindly to it, including mine. Especially mine!

My poor hands started to feel a hot stinging sensation underneath the cool smooth paste of swirly patterns on my hands. During the first 20 minutes, everyone said it was normal. But as time went on, the stinging became more intense and my skin started to turn scarlet. The other ladies who were present started crowding around me, murmuring intelligible Arabic phrases. All I understood was “ahmar“, which meant “red”, a most apt description of the colour of the skin on my hands.

One of the aunties gingerly touched the inflamed skin in between the half-damp, half-dried designs on my hands. She declared that some of the areas have already dried, and she slowly scraped off the hardened bits. I winced as her hands rubbed my skin, then felt immense relief as she gently dabbed some petroleum jelly on the raw areas. Someone else brought in a small ice pack from the kitchen, which they pressed gently on my burning skin.

It took quite a while for the stinging sensation to completely go away, with my skin feeling raw for the next few days, even after we already went back to Malaysia.

Ahh…the lengths women go through for the sake of beauty!

henna on my hand

Feeling like a bride again with henna on my hands… Only the left hand is shown here, as my right hand was holding the camera.

Postscript:

If you are tempted to try this temporary form of tattoo, you can expect the henna to fade within a week or two, depending on the type of henna that you use and how long you let it stay on your skin after application. But if you apply henna on your nails, the colour will go right into the keratin and there is no way of removing it. You can only wait for your nails to grow out.

Different types of henna produce different colours, ranging from red to orange to brown to dark reddish black, and can also be used for dyeing the hair.

16 Responses to My Omani Henna Experience

  1. kayni

    i had this done at six flags, new jersey =), and i thought the designs are so pretty. i like how yours looked like, but i’m really sorry you had an allergic chemical reaction to the henna paste.

  2. Grace

    nice henna..feel sorry for the allergy… I’m quite hesitant to try it now… :-(

  3. Farra

    Henna and Malay weddings can never be separated!

    I had mine done 2 years back and it was DARK RED-ly beautiful as if I had rose petals on my fingertips, minus the chemicals reactions. So, imagine the attention I got on my Big Day :D

    My aunt did them for me and she only adds some tea and betel leaves also some drops of lemons squeeze to enhance the color, all natural ingredients :)

  4. Mimi

    kayni: i didn’t know they do these things in NJ!

    grace: if they use henna only (or add all natural ingredients like farra’s aunt), there shouldn’t be any allergic reaction whatsoever because the henna powder is from the leaves of the henna plant. 100% safe. my allergic reaction was to the chemicals, not the henna.

    farra: you were indeed Queen For A Day that day ;)

  5. avril

    My hair is lustrous because of henna!!! It’s a monthly affair at the beauty saloon!

  6. oman

    Such beautiful designs – did you have the local Khaleeji Henna or the darker Sudani Henna ?

  7. Mimi

    avril: so rajin lah you ;)

    oman: i’m not sure. there were 2 types: red and black. i guess the sudani one is the black one. i had the red one.

  8. odette

    ate mi, did you have it on your wedding day too?
    i’ve read about the possible allergic reactions to some skin, but henna tattoo is definitely a “must-try”for me! :)

  9. Mimi

    no, i didn’t. i couldn’t appreciate it back then :(

    btw if you put henna on your nails, it does wonders to your nails and cuticles. *if* you can put up with it for a few months.

  10. witsandnuts

    That’s pretty!

  11. Sakina

    Hi…nice henna…feel sorry for the allergy… i am one of henna artist in Kuala Lumpur…so just wanna to promote…:)

  12. some 1

    thanx i really need yhat hahahah

  13. Rosemary Kimble

    I just found your post and interestingly enough i had a similar experience. I have been a henna artist a long time and knew about black henna but when i saw authentic africans doing it in a market in santa fe i had to have some! It burned after just a few minutes and i washed it off but the stain was unbelievable! I am writing because i have been searching for an image of omani henna and i see this one on your blog and it is beautful. I am teaching a class on henna this week and woudl love to use the image if i can have your permission and i will of course report about the use of the turpentine in their, henna which is what i read elsewhere is the additive the use. Please let me know what you think. I look forward to your reply.

  14. Mimi

    Hi Rosemary. Sure, feel free to use the images from this post. Pls link back if you are blogging about it. Thanks :)

  15. Jannie

    Hi dear! Do u have teach henna course?

  16. Zila

    Do contact me if you’re keen to try safe natural henna in Malaysia!

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