In the rich tapestry of Kashmir’s cultural heritage, the mehandi function, traditionally known as Maenzra’at (mehandiraat), is an integral part of the wedding rituals. This occasion of festivity, both in rural and urban areas, is a symbol of our tradition. Singing by women goes in chorus on the event till late night. The pre-wedding night mainly remains for ladies who are a vital part of it. Even today, ladies, who attend the ritual with joy, are particularly invited for making it memorable with singing. While young girls lovingly sing Hindi songs and dance on them, the older women revive their own culture by chanting folk songs called Wanvun. This article will concentrate on Maenzra’at, then.
No sooner the evening prayers were over, than the elderly women would assemble in the Shamiyana (tent). A traditional Doull (copper pot) was then brought in, with dry mehandi (henna) blended with walnuts and coins. After adding some water to it, these elderly aunts would start kneading the maenz (mehandi) in the Doull, together. The Doull was big enough to hold number of hands at a time. And while the maenz was mixed, traditional chorus singing was started, like: Bismillah Kareth Kerto Wanvun Ye, Sahibo Azwalo Soniye…loosely translated as, “Start singing with Allah’s name while kneading mehandi. O! The messenger of Allah, we invite you to grace this occasion of mehandi night”. Though these customary songs are a rarity now, yet, they were once our pride.
After the mehandi was mixed, the pot was kept under safe hands, till everyone would join the gathering, only to be offered to the guests later. Special part of it was kept for the bride (or groom) whose hands it was applied after midnight.
During the ritual, women were served saffron Kahwa (our traditional zafr’an tea) with Kashmiri bread Kulcha (muffin) or Tchachvor (kind of a doughnut). The women sang on Tambaknaer (goblet drum), Nout (pitcher) and also beaten copper plates locally known as Traem. Maenz was applied to the bride after mid-night, with a purpose not to let the charm fade. Then, these women were served Nun Chai to refresh them. It was served with tandoori bread locally known as Bakirkhani. And then, when Mahreen (bride) or Mahraaz (groom) was brought in the tent for applying maenz, the pitch of singing would abruptly go up. Songs, especially, in favor of bride were sung in order to make her feel awesome. While a close relative of the bride, applied mehandi on her hands, songs like: Arabachh Maenzaye Wache Daliyay, Mubarak Tchee Himaelyay; Maenz Lagoue Padan Laelyay, Mubarak Tchee Himaelyay…or Aze Chea Hooray Maenzrat, Maenz Lague Kaman Kaman, Maenze Namun Mubarak… were sung.
Even if, brides these days book professional mehandi designers keeping their aesthetic sensibilities in mind, yet, selecting a relative or a friend for it then, had its own charm. Those days, maenz was kept in a Toor (small container) from which it was later taken with small sticks to be applied on bride’s hands as a symbol of auspiciousness. There was no fashion of distributing mehandi cones among ladies, then. It was given as wet, in blobs, from the Doull. Things were simple with no pomp and show. No professional mehandi designers were booked. Everything was arranged from home. However, with a series of unnecessary customs, we have made this night just a show-off and nothing else.
Maenz on bride’s hands was given hours to dry up perfectly. It was washed at Fajr (pre-dawn) time with a belief that the mehandi signifies the strength of love in a marriage and that the longer a bride retains it, the more fortunate would be her future. Its color also signals how much the bride will be loved at her new home which explains why the quest for the darkest henna persists. Then bride would secretly get her spouse’s initials written with mehandi on her palm; such was the grace. Traditionally, Maenzra’at was meant to be organized to keep the bride’s stress level under control. The green mehandi paste which was applied to the hands and feet of the bride was believed to calm her nerves.
Quite often, professional folk singers, locally known as Bache Kut (male dancer who dressed like a female) were arranged on Maenzra’at. But presently, female dancers have started replacing them. Nevertheless, the tradition of bringing Bache Kut in the function is still in vogue at certain places where ladies feel it awkward to join singing.
It merits a mention here that maenz was brought to India by Mughals in 12th century, after it had been in use in the Middle East and North Africa. According to New York based mehandi artist Sharmin Samantha, the earliest signs of mehandi application appeared in Egyptians ladies whose hair and nails were strained with the reddish-brown tones of henna. The word mehandi is derived from Sanskrit word mendhika (color), while henna owes its origin to the Arabic name for Lawsonia-inermis which means Hina. The leaves of the plant contain a red-orange molecule called “lawsone” which has the ability to stain the skin, hair and nails. These leaves were later dried and ground into a powder, mixed into a paste and applied to have a color.
Nowadays, this pre-wedding ritual in Kashmir lacks the cultural spirit. Only relatives and close neighbors participate in it. However, in good old days, relatives, neighbors and others would willingly take part in the occasion. Even the ladies from Pandit and Sikh communities, who happened to be our neighbors, would so dearly join us. Such was the brotherhood and harmony.
Manzoor Akash, a teacher by profession, is a regular contributor.