Guest Post by Angela Magnotti Andrews
The “pitter-patter” of supplicants fingering prayer beads has echoed throughout the halls of history. On nearly every continent, men and women of diverse religious beliefs have fingered prayer beads to keep track of their prayers, meditations, or mantras. These sacred beads have hung from the belts of Hindu monks and medieval priests, graced the necks of kings and noblemen, and draped through the fingers of children and noble ladies.

5 Decade Rosary with Lapis Blue Dolomite and Americana Red Jasper by Unspoken Elements on Etsy

Documented history reports that the Desert Mothers and Fathers, the earliest contemplatives who dwelt in the deserts of North Africa and Asia Minor, enumerated their prayers by dropping pre-counted pebbles in the sand in the third century. There are also reports of Brahman monks in India who wrote of the use of prayer beads in the Jaina cannon. Though written sometime in the fourth century, these holy writings were based on oral traditions dating back to the 500s BC.

Hinduism is often cited as the origin of prayer beads, though this is by no means a definitive assessment. Typically made from natural materials, Hindu malas (‘garlands’) consist of 108 beads. Different sects use different types of wood. The Shaivites fashion their beads from rudraksha (a large evergreen tree which grows in the foothills of the Himalayas), while the Vaisnavites use wood from the tulsi plant (ocimum sanctum, or holy basil). These sacred garlands are used to count repetitions of the names of favored deities.

Rudraksha Japa Mala 108 by Japa Malas on Etsy
Buddhists and Hindus carry Japa malas (‘mantra garlands’), which are also made with 108 beads. The number 108 is significant in  Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which originate in India. Hindus use the japa mala to render 108 repetitions of a mantra. Buddhists regard the number as the statements made by the Buddha or it could represent the number of earthly temptations to overcome before Nirvana can be achieved.

There are as many materials used for japa malas as there are Buddhist countries, though the most traditional are made out of seeds or wood from the Bodhi tree, the most sacred tree under which Buddha achieved his enlightenment. 

The counting of prayers by Christians dates back as far as the fourth century, AD, where Paul of Thebes (Egypt, c. 234-347 AD) moved 300 pebbles from one pile to another while reciting his daily prayers. Later, pebbles in bags were replaced by 150 beads on a string. These paternosters were used to count the recitation of “Our Fathers,” the layman’s prayer for communion with God for the remission of sins. Over time, crosses and crucifixes were added, and the string of beads was enclosed into a loop for easier wear. By the 15th century pilgrims, monks, knights, and even kings made a practice of carrying or wearing rosaries made from dried berries, amber, coral, crystal, or aromatic woods.

Goldstone Rosary by CocoaBean81 on Etsy

Today, rosaries and malas are still in use and can be purchased or handmade. Beads for Catholic rosaries are fashioned out of colored plastic, olive wood, colored glass, rose quartz, amethyst, black onyx, and/or pearls. Buddhists continue to favor animal bone, seeds from the Bodhi tree or lotus plant, carnelian, amethyst, or sandalwood. Hindu malas are most often made from seeds.

Whether you make a rosary, a mala, or your own customized set of prayer beads, you too can enter into the sacred practice of using beads on your path toward enlightenment.

Some book suggestions :

Bead One, Pray Too: A Guide to Making and Using Prayer Beads  (Christian prayer beads)

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads, and Sacred Words

A String and a Prayer: How to Make and Use Prayer Beads

Dharma Beads: Making and Using Your Own Buddhist Malas

Angela is a staff writer for EraGem Jewelry who writes passionately about the history and lore of vintage and antique jewelry.

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