Mehndi Ceremony: An American Perspective as an Indian Bride

My husband was born and raised in India and I was born and raised in the United States. When we were in our early stages of dating, we had already begun to talk about marriage as we both knew from day one that we would spend the rest of our lives with each other. So, due to coming from two completely different cultures, we decided to have to two separate weddings in order to be able to give full respect to the ways that each of our cultures signify and celebrate marriages.

Our first wedding (which we nicknamed our “Indian Wedding”) took place in December 2023 in Monish’s hometown of Vadodara, Gujarat, India at Laxminarayan Club & Resort. For those of you who may not know much about Indian weddings, they are extensive as there are many different rituals, ceremonies and events involved. Weddings will often span over the course of 2 to 3 days, though sometimes they can last as long as 5 or 6 days. We decided that our Indian Wedding would last no more than 3 days as we invited some of my friends from the U.S. and Norway to attend. The more days and events involved, the more planning and preparations would be involved and we weren’t able to do a lot of that ahead of time since we live in the U.S.

Before I go any further, let it be known that because India has such a vast and complex culture, no two Indian weddings are alike, even those taking place in the same region. The events, rituals and the order in which we chose for them to occur for our wedding will likely differ from other Indian weddings held in Gujarat, especially if the families involved practice a different religion. Monish’s family is Hindu, so the religious aspects of our wedding followed those of Hindu tradition and beliefs.

The very first event of our Indian Wedding was the Mehndi Ceremony. Mehndi, otherwise known as henna, is a dye paste associated with positive spirits and good luck that is applied on the body via intricate designs. Indian Wedding tradition calls for a Mehndi ceremony to be held the night before the wedding as a way of wishing the bride good health and prosperity as she makes her journey on to marriage. Typically, the Mehndi Ceremony is organized by the bride’s family bringing together the female components of each side, though because I am American and not accustomed to these rituals, Monish’s parents helped us organize this event at their family home. While Mehndi is mainly for women, male friends and relatives are invited to join in on the party that comes after the bride has completed her henna. Nowadays, men will sometimes get a small mehndi design done on their hand or arm, usually consisting of their wife’s name, though this is based purely on preference.

Monish’s cousin’s husband had his wife’s name written on his arm during our Mehndi Ceremony

The core significance of applying Mehndi is to utilize its natural medicinal herbal remedies, cooling the body and relieving the bride of any stress before her big day. Henna is applied to both the hands and the feet of the bride as a means of cooling the nerve-endings of the body, preventing the nerves from tensing up. While other family members and friends are encouraged to get mehndi designs, they are only allowed have the design created on their palms and the backs of their hands, stopping at the wrists. The bride, however, will have her mehndi design on both sides of her hands and arms, stretching up as far as her elbows, and is the only person to have mehndi on her feet. The extravagance of the bride’s mehndi is what will set her apart from everyone else and make it easily known that she is the woman getting married.

Now that I’ve explained this event and the significance of it, let’s get dive into the details of what it was like for me to experience a Mehndi Ceremony as the bride.

The day before the event, the decorators came to Moni’s parent’s house (which I will refer to as “our house” moving forward) to begin setting up the structure that would hold the outdoor decor. By “outdoor decor”, I mean a colorful, tent-like canopy that would stretch from our house to the neighbor’s house across the street, blocking anyone from being able to drive their cars into the community. When I mentioned my concern about the street blockage to mom, her response was, “this is India. We do what we want!” Myself and all of my foreign friends found this statement hilarious. In the United States, you can’t just easily block off a street because you want to, though in India it happens all the time for events, and especially for weddings.

This entire setup blocked the street in our community – meaning no cars could pass through

On the morning of the ceremony I had to be ready by 10am as that’s when the application of the mehndi would begin. I showered, put on makeup and got dressed in a colorful chaniya choli, having Harsha Kaki (Moni’s aunt) help me drape and pin the dupatta. Although I did plenty of research ahead of time about all of the events, ceremonies and rituals that would be part of our wedding, I somehow missed the notion that the color green is typically associated with Mehndi Ceremonies. Apparently, this is just a commonly known idea within Indian culture, so no one thought to tell me this nor did I seem to find it in writing anywhere online. Thankfully, the chaniya choli I chose to wear had a green dupatta, so everything worked out nicely.

Once I was finished getting ready and had eaten some breakfast, it was time to get settled into a chair at the neighbor’s house across the street and let Jayshree and Ritu begin their work. The art of applying mehndi is very intricate and takes skill, patience and lots of time, so starting in the morning gave these artists the entire day to complete their work. I’d also argue that sitting and receiving bridal mehndi also takes patience as I was required to sit still, often in uncomfortable positions, for hours on end. My feet where perched up on a stool so that Ritu could easily access them while applying the design. At the same time, Jayshree had my arm (first my right, then later on my left) propped up on a pillow so she could easily access her canvas.

The first few hours weren’t so bad as my left hand was free, which allowed me to use my phone to scroll on social media or play the mobile version of a new favorite game of mine: Ludo. Extended family members who were in town would pop in every so often to check in on me, keep me company or, in some cases, meet me for the first time. Additionally, my friends arrived from their nearby hotels pretty early to hangout and keep me company. After awhile, though, I began to get restless and bored. Then I began to get hungry… I’m right-handed, so eating with my left hand was both awkward and uncomfortable, though I was still able to get the job done.

Everyone was starting to get restless

I forgot to mention this before, but once the henna is applied, it has to dry in order to allow the paste to dye the skin, which takes time. As it dries, it becomes hard and crunchy yet it sticks to the skin, and the dye will seep through as time goes on. The longer you keep it on the skin, the darker the outcome will be once the henna paste is removed. Therefore, just because the mehndi artist has finished applying the design, it doesn’t mean that you’re free to start using your hands again. Once the palm-side of my right arm was complete, Jayshree moved to the palm-side of my left arm to allow the designs on my right arm to dry. After completing the palm-side of my left arm, she went to the backside of my right arm then back again to complete the backside of my left arm. I knew all of this before going into the ceremony, but I didn’t fully grasp how frustrating it would be to not have full use of my hands for almost an entire day… It was rough!

After a couple hours of sitting in the same chair, my butt began to go numb and feel a little sore. I was sitting in a plastic chair with no cushion, so I summoned my groom and asked him to bring a pillow for me to sit on. We had to get the pillow under my butt without accidentally swiping off any of the wet henna that was on my hands and feet, which was a much bigger task than I had anticipated. We called in Derek for backup and I had to be lifted up while the pillow was slid onto the seat.

Eventually, we moved outside where the beautiful decor was located so that the photographers could get some nice action shots while my mehndi was still being applied. Although it was nice to stand up and move locations, this was yet another difficult task as we had to ensure that the skirt of my chaniya choli would not touch my feet. Simultaneously, I had to make certain that my hands did not touch anything during this move or else the design might get ruined. We ended up clipping my skirt with some chip-clips, then I walked over to the new seating spot, arms extended outward as if I was a doll whose arms were unable to bend.

The designs that were so intricately applied were absolutely astonishing! Jayshree has been doing mehndi designs for a long time and is very, very skilled and talented in this art form. Fun Fact: She did the bridal mehndhi for Monish’s cousin, Hetvi, and then did my mehndi the next day when we first went to India in 2022 for Hetvi’s wedding. I knew back then that I would ask her to do my bridal mehndi and because she’s family, I knew she’d say yes.

Right arm (from top to bottom) contains a groom riding on a decorated elephant (this is meant to be my husband, Moni), underneath that is fire which is often present during rituals and ceremonies in Hinduism, and my palm contains the Hindu God, Ganesh (also known as Ganapati), as he is known as the “Remover of Obstacles” and is typically present throughout Hindu weddings.

Left arm (from top to bottom) contains a bride riding in a doli on top of a decorated elephant, underneath that are Indian musical instruments (such as drums, known as dhol) that are typically during the wedding festivities and my palm contains a bride and her parents (meant to portray me and my “adopted parents”, Raju Kaka and Kumud Kaki).

In between all of the larger designs are smaller, “filler” designs that include flowers, plants and additional abstract shapes. The backs of my hands are also filled with designs from my finger tips to my elbows, although these have less objects (a few lotus flowers and one peacock on each arm) and include more abstract shapes.

My feet both had the same design on each of them and this includes lotus flowers, jhumkas (traditional-style Indian earrings), a peacock, Indian architecture and additional abstract designs as fillers.

Since my feet contained less “canvas” space and therefore called for less henna to be applied, as soon as Ritu completed her designs, she immediately began to help Jayshree finish the designs on my arms. All in all, it took 7.5 hours for both of the designers to complete my mehndi.

Now that the mehndi application was finished, it was time to take photos with my groom and then with the family. But first, Moni pulled out the blowdryer to help speed up the drying process in order to lessen the chance of accidentally messing up the designs. I was just happy to be standing and have some freedom of movement back!

By the time we were done taking photos, most of Moni’s friends had arrived. We ate dinner and enjoyed the company of our friends and family until late into the evening. I was still advised not to use my hands by the time dinner was being served, so I was spoon-fed dinner by my friend, Derek, while the groom mingled with his friends (most of which he hadn’t seen in years). Although I’m really glad that I got to experience a Mehndi Ceremony as a bride, I am so glad that I never have to endure sitting-still-for-seven-hours-of-mehndi-application ever again!

Eventually, people started heading home as we all had to get up early for the functions that were set to begin the next morning. At this point, I asked, “when can I remove the mehndi?” A valid question considering that the first time I had mehndi applied, I was told I can remove it after a few hours. This is when I first learned that the bride SLEEPS IN HER MEHNDI to allow the dye to become super dark while also making it last longer. I. Was. Stunned. And also not thrilled at the idea of sleeping with sticky, crunchy arms and feet all night. Nonetheless, I did as instructed, although I was more than ready to remove all of it as soon as I awoke the next morning. Unfortunately, sometime while I was sleeping, I moved the left side of my face onto my left palm and placed my right palm on my left bicep, leaving light imprints of the designs on these parts of my body. Whoops! Thank God for makeup that was used to cover this up.

Next up: Indian Pre-Wedding Rituals. Make sure to stay in the loop by subscribing to my blog, where I’ll be sharing ongoing updates on my journey as the bride in an Indian wedding.

Special thanks to Pranav and his team at House of Stories for beautifully capturing all of our wedding events.

Published by Bailey Reber

Hi friends! Welcome to the world of Hey Bails, where you will get a glimpse of all the things I get myself into! Explore the world with me, check up on my progress learning the Hindi language, hear about my journey with mental health & bipolar 2 disorder via my podcast (Distressed to Joyful; Bailey's Way) and learn how to do a variety of DIY projects with me, such as crafting and beauty tutorials. So, what are you waiting for? Let's start having FUN!

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