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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Karvachauth Diaries - Alta or Mehendi for Wedding?

Few days ago I was reminded by my mother in law Karvachauth aa raha hai, get mehendi done on hands! (Karvachauth is on this 22nd get Mehendi done for your hands) and remember no need to keep fast haan, we are totally against this tradition of fasting but I will not stop you to celebrate it. Wear good clothes and jewellery, eat good food, apply mehendi but no fast!!... she said go to green park or this year to get mehendi done or few mehendi wala's our coming to Gulmohar park so you can get your mehendi done by them as well if you like.

Yes, that's my Mother - In - Law a modern traditionalist she does not believe in fasting and karvachauth. She says that why should we women always sacrifice for men and why don't these Indian men keep fast for us as we run their household and run their families in thick or thin. Why should women always sacrifice? My husband also believes in the same theory he says what is the guarantee that the husband will have a long life once his wife keeps Karvachauth? and why don't these so called husbands keep a fast for their wives?

Well what can I say I love them even more now. I did keep a Karvachauth fast once that was right after we got married and he kept the fast along with me and only ate and drank water after I broke my fast (Isn't that adorable?). That's how beautiful he is inside out!!...that night right after I broke my fast he asked me to phir se fast nahin karogi na? ( I hope you will not fast again?) After looking at his cute face and hypnotising eyes  I couldn't control myself and  I said no, I knew that the entire fasting thing left him exhausted and he feared that if I keep a fast again he might faint fasting as well after that night I never kept Karvachauth fast again....

I do celebrate, I purchase good jewellery, clothes, apply mehendi and I eat good food but I don't fast. I told my Mother - In - Law that somehow I am not in a mood for Mehendi this year and wish to apply Alta ( Red Dye). She said okay, I will buy alta for you but remember no fasting.

Many of you must be thinking why Alta (bengali) why not Mehendi? only my kaamwaali bai applies it. I am sorry to say but Alta originally belongs to India whereas Mehendi or Henna is from a foreign soil and was bought in the country along with mughal invadors and persians.

Bengali women continue to use this temporary red dye for weddings, celebrations, poojas and other auspicious occasions. In the image of the hindu godesses, as depicted for centuries in folk art, and sculpture, especially that of Durga and Lakshmi, whose hands even today are not painted with Mehendi. In the forests of Vrindavan where Krishna and Radha play at their romantic love, hindu texts talk about  Lord Krishna painting his lady's hands with red betel leaf juice.

The Idol of Durga Maa with Alta painted on her hands.

Lord Krishna, applying alta to his beloved Radha.

Here, are some of my own pictures when I applied Alta on this Karvachauth 22nd Oct 2013, I must say it looks extremely beautiful as Mehendi.

HOTD: Karvachauth 2013 - Alta with Shakha Pola

Alta with Shakha Pola

Alta on my feet.

Karvachauth FOTD & HOTD : Alta complements Indian Outfits as well as T-shirts.

A Brief Description of Alta:


Mehendi and Alta are almost the same thing and certainly build on the same design principles, though they are applied differently and are made out of different ingredients. The origins of this tradition are very ancient.  The painting of the finger tips and toes red came before painting of nails so I think it would be safe to say the tradition began in India and took on many variations as it made it's way today to a red nail polish.

Alta (bengali) or Mahawar or Rose Bengal is a red dye which women in India apply with cotton on the border of their feet during marriages and religious festivals. During Durga Puja many Bengali women put Alta on their feet and Traditional dancers do not make appearance on the stage without applying Alta.

This tradition exists in India today as a celebratory ritual done mostly for weddings and dance performances. The specific designs can be very subtle, taking all of five minutes to create. There are many books that have recently been printed that have many examples of traditional and modern patterns as far as I know alta is only available in India. It goes on fast and comes off in a day or two, unlike henna. Henna would work but takes at least an hour to dry and doesn't usually seem dark enough until you keep it covered and do not apply water for atleast 24 hours. You need to heat your hands with covered mehendi over hot tawa, keep it warm you can also apply lemon and sugar syrup over it if you want to become really dark, whereas in alta you can apply it in the morning of your event take about few minutes. If you don't have alta, red food coloring works well.

Traditionally Alta was squeezed out of these leaves, later sindoor and kum-kum were also dissolved in water to create this dye. Today chemicals and lac are used to manufacture 'Alta', which one must use with precaution. Red Lac (like Indigo) is one of the most ancient of natural dyes, it was the dye used to produce crimson for Persian carpets. It is a resinous substance produced mainly on the banyan tree by the Laccifer lacca, a scale-shaped insect, the female of which fixes herself on the bark, and exudes this resinous substance. Though poor quality red lac maybe dangerous, Henna however does not win a point over Alta here either, recent cases of fraudulent and harmful chemicals used to produce mehendi cones are coming to light. Especially the suspect is the rather dark, black Arabic mehendi, which leaves the desired effect but causes much damage to the skin, penetrating the layer of fat and entering toxins into the blood stream. Until or unless you are using Green Herbal Henna which is 100% safe as compared to Alta.

In certain areas of India there is a tradition that after the wedding ceremony, when the bride enters her in-laws house for the first time, she steps in a plate of Alta before crossing the threshold with her right foot, leaving red footsteps behind her. This ceremony exists in India since the beginning of time.

I remember the night when I entered my In - Laws house for the first time after the wedding. My Mother- in- law placed a Vessel or Lota full of rice and a plate of Alta. She asked me to firmly place my right foot over the vessel and tumble it over so that all the rice spills on the floor and then step into the plate of Alta and step into to house leaving behind my red alta footsteps. This ceremony is a very pious one it symbolises that as the bride enters the house she would bring along with her wealth, health and good luck as well as abundance of food for all as if she was a symbol and representation of the goddess.

As, you can see in the pictures below Alta is considered very pious and its presence a good omen for any Indian celebration.

Entering with my lovely husband for the first time after the wedding.

Step Into a plate full of ALTA.

Leave beautiful footprints behind.

Such traditions prove that the use of this Alta red dye existed even before henna in our ancient vedic culture and originally mehendi wasn't applied by hindus but alta.

Mehendi a Foreign Plant whereas Alta is Native - a brief history and their significance:

The art of applying henna in hands and feet is known as Mehendi and it is a very old custom and ancient art form of the Asian subcontinent. The propagators were the Mughals. The Mughals taught about the History of Mehendi and introduced it to India during 12th century.

The origin can be from Egypt because it was one of the art forms in Egypt. Henna has the power of medicine was also used as a cosmetic and for its healing power for ages. The beautiful patterning prevalent in India today has emerged only in the 20th century. India, most of the women from that time in India is depicted with their hands and feet with red stain designs. The art of Mehndi has existed for centuries. No exact place of its origin is identified because of people in different cultures moving through the continents and taking their art forms with them and therefore sharing their art with everyone along the way.

The Mehendi plant, not a native of the Indian soil, was largely found in the middle east, central asia and north africa, where 'henna' was used in much the same way during celebrations as 'Alta' in the Indus and Gangetic plains. Henna powder is derived from a plant (actually a bush), Lawsonia inermis, commonly found in the Middle East and other areas where the climate is hot and dry. This bush thrives in these conditions, another reason why it could not have originated in the humid and fertile Indian plains, where however, conditions were more than condusive for the Betel plant to flourish. Henna itself is used for many things such as hair treatment, heat rash relief, and skin conditioner, it was an essential regime for the people of these regions as it has natural property of cooling the human body.

The ancient Egyptians are known to have used both alta and henna as make up products, the use of henna undoubtedly spread from them to the nomadic tribes they did business with, and infiltrated the cultures further north. Ancient Mesopatamia was know to process beetel leaf juice bought from the Indus Valley merchants and ship it to all ancient trading posts. One notable significance of the red Alta as  is that it resembled blood which in all ancient and modern pagan cultures is a sign of fertility and prosperity. The ancient Persians therefore can be traced as the source of the introduction of the Henna plant on Indian soil, via the business or barter exchange system.

The Islamic invasion of India during the 9th century brought henna to India and propagated it's widespread use as a decorative medium. As the muslim population expanded in India the use of this dye slowly replaced the betel juice in first the north west and finally the north of India. At that time henna was still only used in India as a cosmetic dye for the hair. The first documented use of the dye from this plant to paint hands and feet in the manner of the turkish, afghani and mongol tribes, can be found among the women of the royal houses of Rajasthan, whose marriages of alliance to the Mughals made the adaption of this custom necessary.

If in case you have seen The Movie - "Jodha Akbar", Aishwarya Rai is wearing Alta instead of mehendi on her wedding as at that time mehendi was just introduced by the mughals and royal brides of Rajasthan were forced to marry them and adapt their culture as well such as applying mehendi.

A scene from JODHA AKBAR- The Movie.
Aishwarya Rai  protraying Princess Jodha wearing Alta.

"No" North Indian Wedding Complete Without Mehendi:


Application of Mehendi two days before the Wedding.

Indian weddings are incomplete without the mehendi ceremony. The ritual of mehendi ceremony is followed in every part of the country where the hands of the bride are adorned with the lovely red-brown-black color of the mehendi. On these festive or wedding occasions mostly traditional Indian designs are made on the hands of the bride.

Mehendi while it is wet.

Mehendi while its still is wet.

Theses bushes can be grown in dry and hot conditions. The leaves are processed as a skin conditioner and as a reliever for rashes. The henna used for mehendi comes from a bush which is grown in the Africa and India. Henna is used for hair dye and as a conditioner.

Henna patterns will be beautiful and have four different styles.

1. The Middle Eastern style is mostly made up of floral patterns similar to the Arabic paintings.

2. The North African style follows the shape of the hands and feet using floral patterns.

3. The Indian and Pakistani designs include lines patterns and teardrops, Traditional Dulha Dulhan, Palki, Band Baja Barat, Shri Ganesh and the name of the groom hidden among the designs.

4. The Indonesian and Southern Asian styles were a mix of Middle Eastern and Indian designs using   blocks of color on the very tips of their toes and fingers.

  • If you want red or orange colour keep mehendi for an hour and wash your hands.
  • If you want brown colour keep it on for a few hours and then wash your hands
  • If you want dark brown- black colour keep it on for 24 hours and don't wash your hands, apply lemon & sugar syrup, heat it over tawa, let the mehendi fall off when its dry and don't wash it.

You can take a look of the pictures of my Mehendi Ceremony and Sangeet. I look incredibly happy!! :)

Soup, Anyone?

I am thinking!!


He Loves them tooo....

love those bangles and mehendi...

Indian Dancers and Alta:

Application of Alta on Feet.

Only the Indian classical dance forms remained true to their ancient make-up kit, so much so that when Kathak originated as a combination of Bharatnatyam, and Persian-Arab dances, the artistes retained Alta as a necessary part of the dancers get-up.The reasons that people put alta on for a dance performance can vary tremendously from,  some feel that it is done for beauty while others feel the red awakens the prana in ones body as well as the space in which one is dancing, thus infusing the ritual with more sanctity.' the dark red out lines the hands grabs the attention of the audience so that they can see the mudras more clearly.

The red also makes the dancer focus on her hands much more than usual, which can deepen one's experience of the dance, anything to keep one's mind in the right place. There's nothing like having your hand fly past your face in a bright red blur to snag your attention. There is a Sanskrit saying that goes: Where the hand goes the eyes follow, where the eyes go the mind follows, where the mind goes bhava (mood) follows and where the bhava goes there rasa (the force that moves art into the realm of divinity) in born.

Bharatnatyam Dancers.

he placement of the circle (and the pattern of dots) in the middle of the palm and on top of the feet is intended to awake those chakras that are located an your hands and feet. Many people know about the chakras on the spine but few know about all the others. All of the ornaments that a dancer wears are chosen with the specific intention to accent chakras and point one's attention at the divine. The alta designs replicate the shape of the chakras. Bharata Natyam is rooted in the notion that whatever the dancer experiences, the audience will experience in as well, it is a shared experience.

Kathak Dancer.

The color red is chosen because it conducts prana, this is the same reason that most bindis and kum kum are red as well as the saris that brides wear. Red is a very vibrant color and the deep red that is so common in India, is the color of blood and therefore, of life, fertility and vitality.

*After rigorous dancing soak your hands and feet in bath salts or oil (arnica is always good) and massage them often, care for you body as you would care for a temple!

Orrisa Dancer.

Alta - A part of Solah Singaar as Mehendi has no mention in our Hindu Vedas:

All Indian dance forms originated as a means to tell the stories of the goddess and her love and marriage with various hindu gods, it is obvious that the dance costume and subsequent make-up was a reflection of the hindu bride, thus they made use of the Alta dye, which was listed as one of the Vedic 16 signs of Bridal adornment (solah sringaar) as stated in the Upanishads. 

One has only to look to the traditions of the Southern Indian bridal dress to ratify this point. Among the southern brahmins, the bridal jewellery and her dress are directly derived from the bharatnatyam costume, or vice versa. Here an important point to note is that the bridal jewellery in the south is also known as 'temple jewellery' showing how it originated from the motifs and designs on south indian vedic temples, and were stylized into the ornaments worn by the devadasis (wives/ brides of the god, symbolic of the goddess) who alone could perform the classical dances.

the art of mehendi requires a good steady hand, some artistic talent and a good eye, Alta can be apllied by almost everyone but for certain artistic patterns you will again need a skilled person. Alta offers welcome change to those brides who cannot suffer the smell of mehendi, or do not like the colour it brings out on them. The Alta as it fades leaves a even pink stain, whereas the mehendi sheds of naturally along with skin.

Mehendi ceremonies have no base in vedic hindu culture, the marriage ritual described in the Rig Veda from where come most of the sanskrit hyms recited till today at every hindu marriage, describe a ritual that is known as  'Haldi' ceremony that most hindu households still perform for their brides and grooms. Here again, sindoor, kum-kum, turmeric and alta play the major roles, and no use of henna is found.

Another common pre-wedding event described in detail in the scriptures is the 'engagement' ceremony, which is known under various names in different hindu Indian communities, namely 'aashirbaad', 'shagun' 'godh bharai' etc.

The need for mehendi on our hands requires a 'Mehendi Ceremony', separate from the haldi that usually occurs a day or two before the wedding, whereas traditionally there was no such thing as mehendi ceremony before the 12th century as Alta was customarily applied. Henna takes hours to dry, and a day to leave strong brown/black colour it is certainly not a job for a few hours before the wedding whereas
it can be done in the case of alta.

Effect on Indian media and Bollywood on our culture today:

Though many traditional Bengali, Maharashtriyan and South Indian households, have still not adopted Mehendi as a necessary pre-wedding event, the brides of many of these communities now have given in due to the media and bollywood and started to use mehendi as well instead of alta which is actually a wrong practice to adopt.

If you belong to Bengal apply Alta and if you are UP, Punjab or Marwari Bride you need to apply heena or Mehendi only as it is a necessary custom here not to forget that the mughals and persians invaded these areas first and forced the people to change their culture and traditions, they were even forced them to change their religion. So, mehendi became a strict ritual in northern India and not Alta.

But at the same time is you see recent movies like I discussed before like in Jodha Akbar. Aishwariya rai who portrayed Jodha looked beautiful with alta on her feet and you thought only your kaam wali bai applies it actually Queens, Princesses and Hindu Goddesses quite enjoyed using Alta. So, Next time if you apply alta consider it royal.

  • In Choker Bali, Aishwariya Rai portraying Bengali bride and applied alta on her hands during the her wedding ceremony.

  • Also in the movie "Devdas" she applies Alta on her hands and feet as she was waiting for her prince charming Devdas who returns from england after years of waiting or when she got married to a thakur of bengal though she was heartbroken and also during Durga Pooja.

  • In one of the many Paintings made you can see that Lord Krishna applies alta to his beloved Radha in northern part of india known as U.P today.

So, you can see in these pictures that there was a strong influence of Alta in Bengal, UP and Rajasthan.

I would request all bengali brides to keep applying alta on wedding and not mehendi as it looks extremely beautiful on them and mehendi will never add charm to a bengali bride and also beacuse it is really a part of solah sringaar originally. I would request women on karvachauth to apply Alta for change instead of mehendi as it looks extremely beautiful.

An Alta bottle costs around 15 rupees you can apply in the morning as it takes only 15 minutes. I am not against the practice or culture of applying mehendi as I enjoy it myself and I make sure I apply it on any important event like weddings but applying alta is also very auspicious and it can never hurt anyone to apply some on your feet or hands if their is a wedding in you house.

The Modern Day Outlook:

The only thing that I totally hate about Alta is that it only stays for one day on hands as it bleeds whenever you wash you hands specially if you have baby I would not advice it atall as it tends to transfer on skin as well and if you have a dog you will have to keep washing your hands as well. Do not eat with hands as alta tends to bleed, eat only with fork and knife. Since I love eating by hands specially dal chawal I do not do so when alta is on which is terrible drawback of alta. Traditionally alta was a herbal product but nowadays it is a dye or chemical which can be toxic.

I remember that I was having some fruits yesterday and I could see the red dye transferring on the fruit as well which I totally hated as you can't have fruits by fork knife always as I was eating in the car. This is not in case if you have mehendi on since it is semi permanent, it does not bleed even when you eat fruit or dal chawal by hands and lasts for atleast 10 -15 days.

So, if you are working women or a young mother I would suggest that you apply alta only on feet and  apply  mehendi only on hands. Yes, there is a huge controversy that alta is indian and mehendi is muslim. I don't care where they both hail from, All  I have to say is that whether mehendi was introduced by the mughals, persians or the barter system, whether we indians were forced to adopt it or we just fell in love with it. 

Mehendi has been in India since the 12th century and Yes, it might be from a shrub that grows on foreign land but now it is very much "Indian" and a part of culture, it is was widely accepted then over alta and continued even today as mehendi has more advantages over alta, as it has a longer wearing time and does not bleeds but sheds along with skin which is a very natural process. 

It is a herbal product even today as compared to alta which is a chemical or dye. Recently there was also a controversy over the purity of heena or mehendi so I would suggest that you do a quality check for your mehendi as well and make sure that it is 100% natural. Since, I do not have a baby and dint have the time to apply mehendi I quite enjoyed apply Alta for a change.

Some Pros and Cons of Mehendi and Alta:

Mehendi (Heena) Alta ( Red Dye)
Mehendi VS Alta Herbal product but you have to careful before buying any heena cones sometimes they can chemical or toxic as well. Please check purity of heena before applying. Originally a herbal product but nowadays its chemical or a dye therefore use it carefully.
Origin Egypt, Arab, Persia (Muslim) Indus valley and India.
Price Range If you buy your Heena Pack it will cost you around 200- 300 or 50 rupees per hand. 15 rupees per bottle.
Time Period for Application Minimum 1 hour and 4 hours in case of bridal mehendi it takes 24 hours to set in this case as well whereas in the latter it can be washed after few hours to leave a orange brown tint. 15 minutes.
Colour Red - Orange - Black And Brown based on drying time and treatment. Bright Red to pink when it fades.
Time Period for Application Minimum 20 min and 4 hours in case of bridal mehendi it takes 24 hours to set in this case as well whereas in the latter it can be washed after few hours to leave a orange brown tint. 15 minutes.
Colour Red - Orange - Black And Brown based on drying time and treatment. Bright Red to pink when it fades.
Treatments during drying time. 1) Apply Lemon and Sugar Syrup with cotton.2) Heat it over tawa also keep some laung on the tawa so that it dries along with fumes coming from the spice which gives it a darker colour. 3)Apply Kattha on your mehendi after it dries and falls off, which you can get from a pan shop. 4) do not wash it for 24 hours let  it dry and fall off if you want a darker colour. 5) wear plastic gloves to keep it warm or while bathing. No treatment required.
Usage Indian Weddings and Celebrations such as Karvachauth, Diwali, Greh Prevesh, Sangeet Ceremony. Bengali, Orrisa Weddings and Celebrations such as Durga Puja or any important festival in the North East. Indian Classical Dancers don’t go on stage without it from North Indian Kathak to South Indian Bharatnatyam.  
Baby Care  No problem does not transfer non toxic, does not bleeds. Do not apply if you have a baby it is a dye a chemical and is toxic. 
Skin Care Non Allergic Safe but black mehendi also known as Arabic mehendi is a dye can give you allergies and is toxic as the dye can enter you skin and your blood stream as well It is Dye or a chemical. Please check on your feet before you apply it on your hands for allergies.
Hair Care Excellent Hair Conditioner, Gives bounce and shine to you hair. Cannot be applied to hair.
Eating Habits You can eat with hands. Do not eat with hands as it tends to transfer and bleed.

So, let us all rediscover our Indian culture and heritage and apply alta for a change on karvachauth next time if not on hands atleast on feet and remember even Queens and Godesses used to wear it.


  1. We had such an amazing night and so enjoyed working with these guys in all of the planning leading up to the event. They were so great to us and made every last wish come true.

  2. Hi,

    Do your have the procedure to prepare alta? Can you please share it

    1. Hello, It is a ready made mixture just apply it with a cotton bud ...

  3. Hi,
    Would like to know if it stains the clothes when comes in contact.. What are the possible steps that should be followed in order to avoid staining the saree or the dupatta..
    Awaiting reply.. :)

  4. hi.. I m Anita sharma from UP. just saw your pics with alta.. very nice.. I have a question.. don't you wear toerings kya?? I m in second year of marriage and still wear 3 in each feet ( my mother in law scolds if I remove) .. also after marriage during grahpravesh .. I still remember I was having 4 each feet .. ( big toe toerings also that I had to wear for 1 month)).. lol

  5. hi.. I m Anita sharma from UP. just saw your pics with alta.. very nice.. I have a question.. don't you wear toerings kya?? I m in second year of marriage and still wear 3 in each feet ( my mother in law scolds if I remove) .. also after marriage during grahpravesh .. I still remember I was having 4 each feet .. ( big toe toerings also that I had to wear for 1 month)).. lol

  6. Wow. Amazingly written. I completely agree with you. No north indian wedding are complete without mehndi. I always mess up with alta. Because its spreads on clothes, i prefer mehndi and arabic mehndi designs are my personal favorite. I try doing it by own and search online for more amazing designs.

    1. Thank-you, Alta looks beautiful but its messy and doesn't last long!!

  7. thnk you so much for the information..!! i want to ask a question. how long does Alta Dye lasts ?

    1. Alta will be deep red on the first day and on the second and third day it will turn light pink and then fade away!!

  8. Is alta safe to apply on 7 yr old for dance performance?

    1. Is it any way to keep Alta for long as it fades away with simple water.

  9. Thank you, I've been seeking for info about this subject matter for ages and yours is the best I have discovered so far.

  10. Enjoyed this post; especially your mehndi ceremony mehndi. Thanks for the post and kindly visit:

  11. Thanks for share about india wedding process. India is a mysterious country. ah ...

  12. you are right, the use of alta ismuch older in India than mehndi, but what is nowadays used is chemical red dye and is not traditional or original, so it would be good to go back to the use of natural alta

  13. surabhi ji did you make new photos on durga pujan ? and what about Diwali this time? I m hopin g to see the beautiful feet with more changes ths time dear. I hope you will find something more elegant this time.

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