Everything You Need to Know About Traditional Mehndi Ceremonies

An expert dishes on the intricate art form.
Illustration of mehndi art on hand
Illustration: Aurélia Durand
Hannah Nowack The Knot Senior Weddings Editor
Hannah Nowack
Hannah Nowack The Knot Senior Weddings Editor
Hannah Nowack
Senior Editor
  • Hannah writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a focus on real wedding coverage.
  • Hannah has a passion for DE&I and plays an integral role in ensuring The Knot content highlights all voices and all love stories.
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Hannah was the Social Media Editor at Martha Stewart Weddings.
Updated Nov 27, 2023

Have you been invited to a mehndi ceremony as a guest for the first time? Or maybe you're in the midst of planning one to honor your heritage. Either way, you're in luck—we're diving into everything you need to know about mehndi—the prewedding celebration in South Asian cultures where decorative henna designs are applied to the body. Plus, we spoke with wedding expert Jesse Khaira who boasts more than 20 years of experience planning South Asian weddings. We break down all you need to know about this Indian wedding tradition below.

In this story:

What Is Mehndi?

Mehndi is a form of temporary body art, popular at South Asian weddings, where intricate henna patterns are applied to the body. Occasionally spelled mehendi or mihndi, this temporary tattoo art form derives its name from mehndika in Sanskrit. At a wedding, the mehndi ceremony or party is a prewedding event where the application of henna takes place. In short, if you want to define mehndi, it is both an art form and a South Asian prewedding event.

Historically, the application of intricate henna patterns to hands and feet was just for the bride and her loved ones. Modern couples, however, are extending the invitation to the entire wedding party, regardless of gender. Used since the Bronze Age as decoration and skin protectant, henna also has proven anti-inflammatory benefits.

The application of mehndi serves several symbolic purposes: It is regarded as a sign of 'suhaag,' implying a blissful married life, and is emblematic of vibrance, fertility and the attraction of positivity. Traditionally, brides would have mehndi applied to their hands and feet a day before their wedding, though in contemporary practice, it is often applied two to four days prior to facilitate the darkest possible stain. This shift doesn't undermine the tradition, as it is purely for aesthetics. With its cooling properties, mehndi is believed to help reduce a bride's stress as she embarks on her new journey, solidifying its importance in South Asian wedding traditions," says Khaira.

Henna tattoos play an integral role at traditional Indian weddings. Before the wedding ceremony, couples (and occasionally their wedding parties) often have intricate designs painted on their hands, arm and feet. This practice originated in India and the Middle East, and remains an important part of the wedding process. Today, the practice of wearing wedding henna tattoos is common among Hindu and Muslim communities.

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Mehndi Color

The most common mehndi color seen at weddings is dark brown. The dye for henna tattoos is made from the mehndi plant. "Mehndi, also known as henna, has deep-seated cultural significance in South Asian weddings, tracing its roots back to traditional practices where alta, a red dye, was used by women to adorn their hands and feet. Over time, alta was replaced by mehndi in many cultures, while some still uphold the traditional usage. Folklore often connects the darkness of the mehndi stain to the depth of the groom's love for the bride, adding an element of romance and mystique. Furthermore, the intricate designs often contain the groom's name, providing an entertaining exercise for the groom to locate his name, thereby serving as an icebreaker in arranged marriages," explains Khaira.

How Long Does Mehndi Last?

Mehndi lasts between 1 to 3 weeks. Traditionally, brides would have mehndi applied to their hands and feet a day before their wedding, though in contemporary practice, it is often applied 2 to 4 days prior to facilitate the darkest possible stain from the henna paste. The cooling effect it creates on a person's hands and feet is said to help relieve stress and headaches. To aid with the stress relief, newlyweds are encouraged to avoid housework for as long as the stain stays on their hands.

What to Wear to a Mehndi Party As a Guest

Depending on the bride's preferences, you may have the opportunity to receive henna tattoos. If so, wear an outfit with short sleeves so your hands and arm are exposed. A traditional lehenga or saree isn't required—but if you want to wear one, go for it! Otherwise, any formal outfit with lots of color (and jeweled bangles and accessories) are perfectly appropriate. As with most dress code requests, you can find attire details on the formal invitation or the couple's wedding website. One thing to consider, though, is comfort. Mehndi application isn't a quick process (and the intricate patterns will need time to dry), so you may have to sit still to avoid smudges. Make sure your outfit lends itself to being worn for a long time.

What matters most, though, isn't what you wear. Instead, go prepared to enjoy an evening of celebrating love and togetherness. After all, those are the most important values of traditional Indian wedding events.

What to Wear to a Mehndi Party As the To-Be-Wed

For mehndi ceremony dress, traditional South Asian attire is typically worn. For brides, a beautiful sari or lehenga is common. For grooms, a kurta is a great choice. Couples typically choose bright colors that are different from those they will be donning on the wedding day when deciding what to wear to the mehndi ceremony. Vibrant colors like orange, pink, teal and yellow are great for mehndi ceremony attire.

What Happens at a Mehndi Party?

One of the most common (and important) prewedding events is the mehndi party. It's here that the couple is joined by their loved ones to get henna tattoos (or mehndi designs) applied to their bodies before the wedding day. Live music and dancing almost always accompany the tattooing process, resulting in a celebration that honors love and togetherness.

What happens at traditional Indian mehndi parties is up to the hosts. Some may choose to have the mehndi party and the sangeet together to create one large celebration. A sangeet, for reference, is another prewedding event that consists of dancing, singing and celebrating for the couple and their closest relatives and friends. This extravagant celebration often happens the night before the wedding ceremony, so many opt to host their mehndi party within their sangeet.

Regardless of whether these events are hosted together or separately, there are a few key elements to expect at a bridal henna party. It will most likely be hosted at the couple's home (or one of a close family member's), though some may choose to rent a venue. Mehndi parties are more intimate than the wedding ceremony, so being invited is an honor. You'll get to experience cultural traditions firsthand, so attending with an open mind and willingness to learn more is key. The most important factor of a mehndi party is, of course, the application of henna tattoos. You'll join the couple and their families as they receive hand-painted, elaborate designs on their bodies.

Mehndi parties are often planned to have a relaxed vibe, so expect to see plenty of comfortable (and colorful) seating options, as well as a variety of traditional Indian food to enjoy throughout the night. And, as with most cultural events, there will be plenty of singing and dancing. You might also get to experience live entertainment and performers as well.

Sarah Hanlon contributed to the reporting of this story.

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