Growing up in northern India, Manju Gupta looked forward to her aunt decorating her hands and palms with henna.
The paste, made from crushed leaves of the henna plant, felt light and cool against her skin. After the paste set overnight, she'd remove it, and Gupta's hands would be covered with flowery, fine-lined designs in a deep russet hue.
"I was small, 7 or 8," said Gupta, now 34 and living in Manchester Township. "I remember at the time, it took so long to put on."
As a teenager, she studied the 5,000-year-old art with a teacher in India. Years later, she operates a salon out of her Manchester Township home, painting the hands and feet of women who often wear the temporary tattoos for religious rituals and holy days such as Diwali or the end of Ramadan.
"You can make designs and beautify your body. This is an art," Gupta said. "In India, the Middle East and Africa, this is a way of celebration."
Among Gupta's clients are brides originally from India, Pakistan or Egypt, she said. Bridal henna is the most elaborate, taking up to four hours to apply and usually reaching from the fingertips up the forearm and the toes to the knees.
"The bride is a princess at that time," she said. "In India, we have the Night of Henna, a day before the wedding when all the family members get together and put the henna on."
The use of henna as body decoration probably originated in the eastern and Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age, said Catherine Cartwright-Jones, who is writing her dissertation on henna at Kent State University.
With time and migration, its popularity spread to the Arabian peninsula, northern Africa and south Asia and remained largely associated with bridal preparations. The English word, henna, comes from the Arabic word for the plant, hinna; however, many South Asians know the body art as mehndi.
In the late 1990s, henna become more visible in the West with growing numbers of South Asian immigrants and the release of a music video by Madonna in which she wore henna on her hands, said Cartwright-Jones, who operates the Web site The Henna Page. After the exposure, henna kits popped up on store shelves, and henna tattoo booths became common at carnivals and beachside boardwalks.
Gupta believes part of the attraction is that the application of henna -- unlike ink tattoos -- is relaxing, not painful and, most importantly, not permanent.
Henna paste is made from leaves of the henna plant and an acidic substance such as lemon juice. The acids release a dye called lawsone, which seeps into the skin and sticks to the proteins there. A henna stain -- done properly -- will last up to 30 days, fading as the outer layer of skin sloughs off (water will not wash it away).
Ruthie Kuntz, a retired art teacher from Manchester, signed up for a class Gupta taught last month at Sinking Springs Elementary School. She had seen henna on the Travel Channel and in how-to books in her local craft store and was intrigued.
"It just looks like something different and it's not forever," Kuntz said. "I think it's beautiful."
Another student, Karen Sawyer of Springettsbury Township makes her living as children's entertainer Skeeta the Clown. She learned the art of henna at a conference of face and body artists five years ago.
"I do an Arabian Nights-themed party," Sawyer said. "The kids love it, and it's fun."
She offers the henna in addition to face painting at birthday parties and other venues but wanted to learn how to make her own paste from a powder instead of buying it prepared.
Gupta walked the class through straining the powdered henna, mixing it in a bowl with lemon juice and stirring to break up the lumps.
"It should be the consistency of mashed potatoes," she said. "Not too thick, and not too fine."
After oxidizing, the paste is packed into a fine-tipped bottle or cone that resembles a baker's pastry bag for icing.
With a steady hand, Gupta demonstrated a design on a student's palm with buds and blossoms, piping vines up her fingers in rows. She added sprouts and leaves, clusters of seeds and curly-Qs that folded back on themselves like a scorpion's stinger.
Each design is different from the last, but always breathtaking.
"I like the designs, I like to draw," she said. "When it comes off after drying and everything -- I feel good. It's my passion."
Henna is a paste made from the crushed leaves of the henna plant. It's been used for body decoration for thousands of years by people in Africa, the Middle East and India especially. The paste -- applied to the skin and left to set for several hours -- leaves behind a temporary tattoo that lasts seven to 30 days. Henna is also used to dye hair.
The Henna Page, www.hennapage.com
Meet the artist
Name: Manju Gupta
Lives in: Manchester Township
Family: Husband Vijay and children Ayushi, 10, and Edha, 5
Occupation: Henna artist and threading specialist (threading is a method of hair removal)
Contact: 854-8184 or email@example.com
Steps for long-lasting henna
1. Wash the area where henna will be applied. Avoid lotions and oils.
2. After application, wait until the paste has dried. Apply a mixture of sugar and lemon juice (or hair spray) for sealing.
3. Leave the henna paste on for seven to 12 hours. The resulting color depends on each person's body chemistry.
4. Peel off the dry henna paste with a spoon, spatula or the back of a butter knife. Avoid using water to remove the henna.
Beware of black 'henna'
Henna paste that advertises "instant" results probably contains chemical dyes such as PPD (para-phenylenediamine), also known as black "henna."
This product, which has a chemical or ammonia smell, is not natural henna and can cause blisters, scarring and severe allergic reactions.
PPD is allowed in several substances, including inks, hair dye and textile dyes.
On the shelf
"Mehndi: The art of henna body painting," by Carine Fabius
"Henna from head to toe," by Norma Pasekoff Weinberg
"The Art of Henna," by Pamela Nichols