Like many fans of pop-culture, romance, and opulence, I’ve suffered the most terrible F.O.M.O. watching the wedding activities of Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas. The pics are straight out of a Bollywood film, but my favorite part has been the couple’s transparency behind the rituals. One thing that really caught my eye was the reference to the traditional hindu ceremony called mehendi. Nick writes in an Instagram post: “An important part for the girl in an Indian wedding is the Mehendi.” Theirs took place in Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, and though I’ve devoured every image of it so far, I’ve experienced events like it many times before.
Mehendi ceremonies are deeply intimate even as they’re raucous and joyful. Usually set two to three days before a wedding, they are a time when the women in a bride’s and groom’s families come together, and have intricate henna designs applied to their hands and feet. (The couple of the hour broke from tradition, so Jonas could be a part of this typically girls-only ritual.) As a kid, every mehendi ceremony I went to felt like I was being admitted into a vast secret, even when I hated the cold jewelry and itchy clothes that Indian wedding festivities required, the shuffling from aunt-to-aunt-to-cousin-to-sibling and back. But mehendi night was different. Magical.
On mehendi night, the women of my family held court from their jewel-bright pillows like empresses from forgotten poems. The bride, my aunt, sat in the middle, serene as an icon. There was a moment when I felt suddenly shy around her even though I’d known her my whole life. It was the first time I felt like she’d crossed some threshold to a place I couldn’t follow. (Priyanka Chopra embodied this regalness in a bright yellow- and pink-striped embroidered dress by Indian designer Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla.)
During the ceremony, my aunt held out her arms to a woman holding what looked like a thick pen. The artist drew dark, flowery whirls, vines, and paisleys that stretched from my aunt’s elbows to fingertips. Her feet were similarly adorned. The whole room smelled of henna, a cloying mixture of hay and warm spices, like candied earth.
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As I grew older, the mehendi ceremony became my favorite event. It was always full of laughter, gossip, women … and I grew curious about the reasoning behind the ceremony. Some of my family members explained that henna’s ayurvedic properties ease the nerves. Others said it was merely for decoration. My favorite part, however, was the lore. Supposedly, the more intensely the rust-red henna showed up on the skin, the more the groom and his mother were destined to love you. Even the color, somewhere between cherry and chocolate, was said to bring prosperity.
But henna isn’t just for the bride. On the eve of my cousin’s wedding, she pointed to a section of her henna where the artist had cleverly hidden her groom’s name in the design. “He has to find it,” she said slyly.
At the time, I was in my teens, stuck in a paradoxical age where I both desperately wanted to earn notice and stay invisible. I couldn’t imagine anything more vulnerable or horrifically awkward. Because here, in the design, lay an invitation to discovery: to touch.
As a writer and the daughter of immigrants, I spend a lot of time thinking about ceremony and tradition, how things have changed — and not changed — in the crossing of oceans. There’s a beautiful imprecision to honoring your heritage so far from your original lands. When I ask my mother or grandmother to show me how they prepare certain family dishes, there’s no rubric. It’s always “a handful of this” or “add fenugreek leaves until it smells right,” or an absent-minded shrug of “you just know.” To me, this is terrifying. There are so many unknowns. That’s just the price of existing.
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#TBT to exactly one year ago when you told me to come look at a castle even though I really wanted another pastry but I said yes and was grumpy but then you proposed AND I got my pastry. Best day ever.
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In a few months, I’ll be married. And while I won’t have paparazzi hounding my every move, it does feel like a chapter in my life of intense scrutiny. I will engage in those ceremonies I’ve watched since childhood. I’ll sit with my arms outstretched, a still figure in a nexus of the women of my family. I will have the vantage point of being the center and looking out at all the women I love who have shaped me into who I am. For a few hours, I’ll slip into an infant’s neediness, dependent on them to feed me and hold water to my mouth while the inked design dries on my skin, where it will later become that invitation to touch.
I think, now, I finally understand the secret of the ceremony that once eluded me. The reason why someone like Nick Jonas can only say “it’s an important part” because over-explaining robs it of its enchantment. There’s no recipe for love hidden in the henna design. But when I walk down the aisle — feeling the weight of hundreds of eyes, adrenaline glittering in my veins, and nerves setting my senses alight — I can look at my hands and see the secret scrawled across my skin: That I am part of something greater than myself. That I am not alone. And what message, on the occasion of a woman’s wedding, could be more important than that?
Roshani Chokshi is a New York Times bestselling author; her novel The Gilded Wolves is available now for preorder, and on sale January 15, 2019.
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