A Brief Description of Alta
Mehndi 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 but I don't know if anyone has tried to pin down an exact date. The painting of the finger tips and toes red is the predecessor of painting the 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 to the 21st century manicure/pedicure.
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, or artistic masterpieces taking several hours. 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, especially if your skin is dark to begin with. Alta has a chemical name that I have forgotten. If you don't have alta, red food coloring works well. I have seen people paint on their skin with fingernail polish, a practice that I find totally nasty.
This tradition is only practiced by women (and the occasional transvestite), the specific designs have been passed down for generations. It should be mentioned that there is something very sexual about having your hands painted but I'm not going to get into that aspect here.
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.'
On the most mundane level the dark red out lines the hands so that the audience 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.
The 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 partake in as well, it is a shared experience.
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. This is not random in any way. There is a quote of Smt. Balasaraswati's that describes how the alta reminds us that our blood is pulsating through our entire bodies and our prana extends far beyond our reach. Something to keep in mind as we meander through our lives.
*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!