I was 20 years old when I got my ears pierced. Seriously. I brought two friends to my parent’s home during spring break of my senior year of college, and one of them coaxed me into getting my ears done before we returned to school. After 20 years of thinking I wasn’t “girlie” enough to have pierced ears, I finally let go of a few old beliefs, and had a small, round silver stud inserted into each lobe. The earrings were both pretty and sophisticated, and I soon realized that I actually liked wearing earrings. I liked adding some sparkle to my body.
Fast forward ten years. The company I work for decided to open an office location in Bangalore, India. Over the next 24 months, various people who worked in my area took trips to India to visit the new location, and greet/teach the newest Indian employees. Nearly all of the women returned to the U.S. with pictures of monkeys and cows, a suitcase containing jewelry and silk saris, and a body adorned with henna. When I first saw the various brown decorations on people’s hands, arms, legs, and feet, my immediate reaction was, “Ick.” I don’t like tattoos, and the Indian body art too closely resembled permanent ink for my tastes. However, with repeated exposure, my reactions shifted, and I transitioned from dislike, to neutrality, to curiosity about the henna.
When I traveled to India in 2006, I was in pretty rough shape (physically, mentally, and emotionally). During the nearly two weeks I was in Bangalore, I focused exclusively on work, and on trying to not be sick – and I squandered many opportunities as a result. Mercifully, I don’t have too many regrets in my life – but the ones I do have are kind of big. “Not taking advantage of everything I could have seen or experienced in India” is on my regrets list.
Suffice to say, I did not get a henna tattoo for $0.50 from an old Indian lady in Bangalore. At the time, I was fine with that decision; but as the years passed, I found myself thinking about it every so often (usually when I saw henna on someone else’s body). So when I created the 101 list, I decided to include “Get a henna tattoo” for two main reasons: 1) to see first-hand what this Indian form of body art was all about; and 2) to help ‘put to rest’ some guilt I still carry about my past.
I kept my eyes open for a venue or event that might offer an opportunity to get a henna tattoo (yoga studios, global markets, Indian restaurants…); interestingly, the first place I saw a henna experience offered was in our city’s spring Community Education brochure. I’m an ardent fan of Community Ed, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to complete item #31. Not only would I receive a tattoo, but I would also obtain new knowledge. Wonderful!
The “Henna Beauty and Body Art” class was held on a Thursday evening from 6:30-8:30 pm. I arrived at the community center at 6:25 pm, and walked in to an empty room. Um, hello….? I checked my registration slip; I was in the right building. (On the right day, and at the right time.) I walked to the hallway and double-checked the room number. I was in the right place. So where is everyone?
At 6:29 pm, two other students arrived. They were friends, 30- and 40-something accountants at a large medical device company, who registered for the class as a fun way to spend some time together (and not have to overeat or drink in the process). We all smiled at each other, then sat in silence as we waited for the instructor to arrive.
At 6:42 pm, the teacher finally fumbled into the classroom, breathing heavily and looking frazzled. “Heavy traffic,” were the first words she uttered, delivered with a tone that indicated 50% explanation, 35% ploy for sympathy, and 15% apology. She set a large plastic storage bin on one of the tables, plunked her own body into a chair, and launched into a multi-minute monologue about congestion in the city, the need for better roads and infrastructure, and the absolute busyness of her own personal schedule. As she was born and raised near Chennai, she spoke with a very thick Indian accent. (So much so that I struggled to understand her for the first few minutes of class, until I got a little bit used to her speech patterns and mannerisms). In those first few minutes of class (late start, disorganized leader, length explanations made even longer by infusing numerous unrelated tangents into the conversation), I realized this was going to indeed be a very authentic Indian experience. Oh lord. Here we go….
The first 45 minutes of class consisted of the instructor explaining how to make and apply henna to the skin. An average American citizen would have presented this content in about 20 minutes – and a professional trainer would have completed the delivery within 10 minutes. As I am in the last of those three groups, I had to practice a lot of patience to remain calm and appear somewhat engaged while the instructor spoke to us about stealing and karma, the value of formal and informal education, the biology of probiotics and how they support healthy digestion and gut flora, the evils of pharmaceuticals and the superiority of home remedies… Oy yoy yoy. After lots of starts and stops, diversions and detours, I got the general idea of how to create a henna tattoo. Here are the instructions the teacher verbally shared, edited for clarity and conciseness by me. (You’re welcome.) ;)
How To Create A Henna Tattoo
PART 1: Make the Henna
- Purchase all-natural henna powder. (It can usually be found at an Indian or Middle Eastern grocery store.)
- Mix 100 grams of ground henna with plain yogurt, or the juice from one whole lime or lemon. (If using a lime/lemon, make sure absolutely no seeds or pulp get into the henna. Only juice.) Then add 10 drops of eucalyptus oil.
- Mix everything together until the ingredients form a paste. (Ideally with a consistency similar to toothpaste.)
- Once made, let the paste stand for 3-4 hours before using it.
PART 2: Apply the Henna
- When you’re ready to apply the henna, make a cone that has a needle-fine point to it. (The instructor claimed that a person could make a cone out of a plastic bag and some tape, but all three of us students found that to be a frustrating task to attempt. I would recommend using a syringe or squeeze bottle with a tiny tip.)
- Load the cone/syringe/bottle with the henna paste.
- Apply the henna to the desired body part(s).
PART 3: Seal the Henna
- Mix 1 Tablespoon sugar with the juice from 1 large lemon (and a little water if the sugar doesn’t completely dissolve in the lemon juice).
- Use a cotton ball to dab the sugar/lemon solution on top of the henna that has been applied to the skin.
- Let the sugar/lemon/henna paste stay on the skin for 6-8 hours.
- After 6-8 hours have elapsed, scrape off the residual sugar/henna.
- Then apply baby oil or olive oil to the now-mostly-clean tattooed area.
- Finally, “set” the tattoo by warming the skin. You can either rub the tattoo with warm hands for 1-2 minutes, or use a hairdryer set on low heat to blow on the tattoo for 30 seconds.
- Once the tattoo is set, you can go about your day, and show off your beautiful body art to anyone (everyone).
As I learned the step-by-step process we were about to undertake, I was a little surprised. I thought at the end of the two-hour class I would have a lovely little henna tattoo; I had no idea I had signed up for an eight-hour process. Umm….
But it was too late to voice any concerns now, as 1) I was already sitting in the class (and had already invested an hour of my time), and 2) the teacher had already moved on to the next topic.
As my brain wrapped around the idea of having to sleep with a mess of yogurt-infused mud on my body (as I wasn’t going to stay awake until 3 am simply to allow some henna to set), the teacher put a piece of paper and a pencil in front of each student. “Draw a design,” she said. “This will be your tattoo.” Um… I don’t know how to draw. Seriously. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you may remember past posts that explain how crappy I am at art. So I’m not a big fan of the words, “Just draw.” Yet, the woman wasn’t going to allow any of us to move forward until we all put something down on the blank page before us – and until she inspected it.
As I sat in my chair halfheartedly dragging a pencil around the page, the instructor took advantage of the pause in formal instruction to talk, talk, talk about nothing in particular. Her discourse went on various tangents: about Ayurveda, Hinduism, yoga… politics, business, ethics…”proper” spiritual practices and “moral” personal behaviors…. This woman broke nearly every social etiquette rule imaginable, and unknowingly made offensive remarks about many different areas of my life (from my religious preferences and practices, to my diet, to my profession). Seriously? Really, seriously?
Twenty-five minutes later, I was almost ready to pick up my purse and walk out the door, when the monologue finally ended (that you sweet, merciful universe) and we students finally got to receive a henna tattoo. (Which, as you might not remember by now, was actually the entire reason I signed up for this class in the first place…) Only, we had to give ourselves a tattoo before the teacher would put a professional one on our body. Ugh.
So I removed one of my shoes and my sock, and quickly slapped some henna on my foot. Despite my resistance to put a messy design on my own body, I was surprised at how soothing it was to apply the henna – how I kind of lost myself in the scent, the texture, and the focus required to complete the process. As I finished my own sloppy pattern, I found myself quite a bit calmer than I was just a few minutes before. Interesting…
I showed my progress to the instructor, and she agreed that I had a sufficient quantity of “my own” henna on my limb. At that point, she put a lovely little design on my lower leg. Despite all of the issues I had with this woman in the preceding 110 minutes, I do have to admit that she is very good at her craft. She deftly painted dainty flowers and cute windy vines on my shin, and by the end of the class session I did obtain what I came for: a henna tattoo.
As I returned to my seat to collect my footwear (and purse) so that I could leave the classroom, the instructor generously offered us her home phone number and email address, along with an invitation to contact her if we had any questions later on. “One week, or one month, or one year from now – does not matter. If you have question, call me. Write me. Better to know and do henna right, than be unhappy. No need to be unhappy. Smile! Enjoy henna! Love life!”
I took that as my cue to leave, and stepped out of the classroom. I took a deep breath in, let it out s-l-o-w-l-y, then walked unevenly down the hall to the front of the building, more than ready to get home. However, as I approached the exit, a custodian saw me walking – and I must have looked like some sight. A bare foot and leg all marked up with henna mud, carrying a sock and tennis shoe in my hand… Appearing both curious and concerned, the janitor asked, “Did something happen to your foot?” Without breaking my stride, I simply responded, “Yeah… don’t ask.” Mercifully, in that moment the man seemed to totally understand where I was coming from, and simply replied, “Okay, I won’t.”
I finally made it to the parking lot, where my car sat waiting for me. As I stepped on the asphalt and gravel, I was grateful that at least it was a nice warm night. But then I got to thinking: what if I had taken the class in the winter? (Or even in early spring or late fall?) I couldn’t have traipsed around with an exposed foot on ice or in snow… But whatever. I refocused on the present situation, and drove home barefoot. At least I didn’t have very far to go.
When I got home, my sweetie looked at me (shoeless, muddy, and smelling like Indian food), and very tentatively asked, “Um, how did it go?” I recounted the evening’s events to him – and when I got to the part about the henna needing to stay on my leg for several hours, he even more cautiously asked, “So, uh, how are you going to do that, exactly?” I explained that I was going to get a big ol’ plastic trash bag, stick it over my leg, secure the top with some duct tape, and then go to bed. My leg would probably be sweaty when I woke up in the morning, but at least I wouldn’t have stained the bed with dark brown dye. Thankfully, my sweetie didn’t offer a response to this plan, but instead chose to be quiet and simply resumed reading his magazine. (For all of the weird stuff I do, I’m truly grateful that my husband largely just accepts most of it without making me feel awkward. That is love.)
I did indeed carry out that plan (duct tape and all), and in the morning awoke to a moist, curry scented limb. I followed the post-henna-care instructions (i.e., scrape, lube, and set the tattoo), and for the next few weeks had a brown reminder of the interesting evening’s events.
This was definitely one of my more “interesting” experiences yet. Very, very Indian. Who would have guessed?