Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hindu Prayer Beads

Hindu Japa Mala
Photo Credit: The Full Wiki

In Hinduism, prayer beads serve the function of focusing the mind on each individual mantra rather than on the counting of the mantras. A mantra is a sacred sound, syllable, or word that has transportive meaning to the mind.

These “energetic vibrations,” capable of penetrating both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems of anyone within earshot of the chanting, are reported to have been discovered by yogis and Rishis (Vedic seers) who received them while practicing transcendental meditation over 6,000 years ago. {3}

Assumption is made that the Hindu practice of praying with mala beads evolved from this ancient Vedic practice, sometime between 185 BC and 320 AD.

Hindu Malas
It is important to note that it’s not the counting of the mantras that is important. Rather, it is the focused intention of thought upon the sound vibration that draws a devotee into an altered state of consciousness, empowering both him and the mala (rosary) with spiritual energy that further aids his practice. {1}

There are as many different types of malas as there are sects of Hinduism, and there are as many mantras as there are gods and Hindus. The two main branches of Hinduism, Vishnus and Sivas, use different types malas. Vishnus fashion 108 wooden beads out of the wood from the tulsi tree (holy basil), and Shivas use seeds from the rudraksha tree to make strands of 32 or 108 beads.

Hindu Prayer Beads
Photo Credit: Hein Bratt

Using Hindu Malas
In addition to 32 or 108 round mala beads, most Hindu prayer strands also include one larger bead called the Guru, Seva Mother, or Mother Bead. {2} This larger bead represents the sacred attachment between the teacher and his student. In Hinduism, a Guru, the essential person (teacher) in a student’s life, is often tasked with the role of assigning specific mantras. Therefore, the Guru Bead is a sacred bead that should not be crossed during the recitation of prayers. If a supplicant reaches the last mala bead and wishes to continue, he must turn the strand around and begin again in the other direction.

Hindus follow a sacred practice in using their prayer beads, which begins with holding them in the right hand with the strand draped over the middle finger. Ancient Hindus believed that using the index finger was in poor taste and would increase karmic debt, so modern practice includes keeping the index (and the pinky) finger completely away from the beads.

Using the thumb to slide each bead across the fingertips of the middle and ring fingers, the devotee establishes connection between his brain and the nadis (vital energy centers) of his fingers while repeating the name of the god he wishes to honor. Supplicants believe that repetition of these mantras will create a heat that incinerates karma. {2}

Rudraksha Mala
Photo Credit: San Marga

Types of Hindu Malas
Different types of beads are believed to invoke the power of certain gods, thereby releasing different forms of healing into the supplicant’s body. Coral, believed to restore health to those with anemic conditions, is used in worship of Lord Ganesh, Hanuman, Lakshmi, and the planet arms. {5}

Rudraksha beads seem to be a universal material that brings honor to many of the gods and to all nine planets. Amber beads are used by those suffering from blood disorders, including issues of menstruation. White sandalwood malas are believed to bring peace and empowerment and are most often used to worship ram or Vishnu. {5} These are just a few of the many materials Hindu mala beads are made from.

It is believed by Hindus that the seeds from the rudraksha tree symbolize God’s compassion for all life and that they vibrate at a frequency that releases peace and health to the body. It is believed that these seeds decrease body temperature and blood pressure, thereby relieving stress and strain from the body. {6}

Hindu malas closely resemble Buddhist malas, and many scholars believe that Buddhists adopted the practice of using them directly from their Hindu ancestors. However, there are some very distinctive mala practices in the Buddhist faith.

Read more about Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian prayer beads.


1. Adams, Tom. “Prayer Beads—Tibetan Mala.” Eastern Healing Arts (website). Copyright 2004-2010. Accessed October 26, 2012.
2. Khalsa, Dayakaur. “Mala Beads.” Mala-beads (website). Accessed October 29, 2012.
3. Paul, LoriAnn V. “How to Pray With Muslim Prayer Beads: Thikr, Dhikr, Zikr, Tasbih, Tespihi, Subha, Misbaha.” Hearts to Heaven (website). Accessed October 26, 2012.
4. Rosary Workshop. “Journaling the Bead: A History of the Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
5. S, Anamika. “Hindu Prayer Beads for chanting Mantras.” HubPages. Last updated June 17, 2012.
6. San Marga Iraivan Temple. “Rudrakshas.” Himalayan Academy (website). Accessed October 29, 2012.
7. Winston, Kimberly. Bead One, Pray Too. New York: Moorehouse Publishing, 2008.

*Clip-art courtesy of The Graphics Fairy

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Muslim Prayer Beads

Islamic Prayer Beads
Photo Credit: Patheos
It is said that the prophet Mohammed invoked the very presence of God (Allah) by reciting all 99 of His most beautiful names. Muslims believe that the recitation of Allah’s names will grant them entrance into paradise. {8}

Subhah Beads
Today, as an aid in the recitation of Allah praises, Muslims use a string of 100 or 34 prayer beads. These rosaries, called subhah or tesbih, are used most often to close out the five daily prayer times. Facing Mecca, a devout Muslim takes hold of his beads in his right hand. With his fingers, he touches the first bead and recites the first of God’s most beautiful names. Cycling through each round bead, he makes his way through the entire list of 99 names, ending with the essential name, Allah, on the final horn-shaped bead.

Though the number of beads on a subhah are crucial (33 or 99), the materials from which the beads are made can vary. In the time of Mohammed, Allah’s prophet (570-632 AD), beads were most often made of stones, pebbles, or date seeds. Much later, during the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922 AD), crystal beads were often accompanied by silver tassels. Though most commonly fashioned out of wood, more modern Muslim prayer beads have been made of amber, pearl, coral, ivory, jade, gold, silver, glass, and plastic.

On a strand of 99 beads, there is always one “leader” bead called imame, bringing the number of beads to 100 (or 34 for a smaller set of 33 beads). On a full strand, there are also two nisane discs between each set of 33 beads and one pul which marks the seventh position. On a strand of 33 beads, the nisane are placed after every 11th bead, and the pul is excluded.

Muslim Prayer Beads
Photo Credit: Abdur Rahman's Corner

A Variety of Prayers
Just as Muslims use various materials to make their prayer beads, there are also many variations in how they are used. One such variation is to use a string of 34 or 100 beads to recite three cycles of mantras. To practice this form of meditation, a supplicant will repeat three different phrases 33 times each:

"Allah is sublime.”
“All praise goes to Allah.”
"Allah is the greatest.”

On the 34th or 100th bead, the following prayer might be recited: “There is no God but Allah. He is One. He has no partner. To Him is the dominion of all praise, and He has power over all things.” {5}

Making Pilgrimage
Every able-bodied Muslim is required to make a pilgrimage (hajj) at least once in his or her lifetime to Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia. During a hajj, a devotee might use his subhah to recite the 100 beautiful names of God, including “The Source of Peace,” “The Creator,” and “The Great Forgiver,” as he walks around the Ka’ba, a large, black cuboid building considered to be the sacred center, not only of Mecca, but of the entire universe.

Muslims, like Hindus and Buddhists, believe that reciting the sacred names of God in mantra-like fashion focuses the mind, drawing the supplicant beyond the physical into the metaphysical plane. It is in worship of the One True God, Allah, that Muslims find their center, their purpose of being. In order to keep worship of Allah as the primary center of their lives, Muslims halt all activities five times a day, turn toward Mecca, and recite their prayers on their prayer beads.

Read more about prayer beads: Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist.


1. Answering Islam. “Names of Allah, the 99 Beautiful.” Accessed October 26, 2012.
2. Encylopedia Britannica Online. “Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
3. Islam Tomorrow. “Purpose of Life.” Accessed October 27, 2012.
4. Museum of Anthropology. University of Missouri. “Prayer Beads: A Cultural Experience.” Copyright 2011. Last updated October 22, 2012.
5. Paul, LoriAnn V. “How to Pray With Muslim Prayer Beads: Thikr, Dhikr, Zikr, Tasbih, Tespihi, Subha, Misbaha.” Hearts to Heaven (website). Accessed October 26, 2012.
6. Prayer Beads World (website). “Prayer Beads in Islam.” Copyright 2008. Accessed October 22, 2012.
7. Wiley, Eleanor and Maggie Oman Shannon. A String and a Prayer: How to Make and Use Prayer Beads. Boston & York Beach: 2002.
8. Winston, Kimberly Bead One, Pray Too. New York: Moorehouse Publishing, 2008.
9. Adams, Tom. “Prayer Beads—Tibetan Mala.” Eastern Healing Arts (website). Copyright 2004-2010. Accessed October 26, 2012.
10. Khalsa, Dayakaur. “Mala Beads.” Mala-beads (website). Accessed October 29, 2012.
11. Rosary Workshop. “Journaling the Bead: A History of the Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
12. S, Anamika. “Hindu Prayer Beads for chanting Mantras.” HubPages. Last updated June 17, 2012.

*Clip-art courtesy of The Graphics Fairy

Monday, October 15, 2012

Christian Prayer Beads

Orthodox Prayer Rope
Photo Credit: Mercy Chapel

Prehistoric desert monastics were known to carry pebbles in their pockets which they dropped rhythmically in the Egyptian sand as they recited their prayers. These Desert Fathers and Mothers began writing about this practice in the 3rd century A.D.

Over time, this devout practice transformed from piles of pebbles to seeds or small stones strung on cords of rope. This new practice likely evolved in order to save the supplicants some time. These initial prayer cords were straight, not looped as we find them today.

The first circlets of prayer beads were discovered in European graves dating to 782 A.D. Rings of bone sewn into leather thongs were turned over as prayers were counted. Though these simple circlets were popularly used by devotees for many centuries, they were not used by all sects of Christianity.

History shows a divergence of practice, with Orthodox believers adopting the use of knotted prayer ropes and Catholics using strings of beads to count their prayers.

Murano Glass Rosary
Photo Credit: Musings from a Catholic Bookstore

Orthodox Practices
The first use of knots to count prayers is difficult to pin down, but legend has it that Saint Anthony, founder of Orthodox monasticism, tied a knot in his leather rope every time he prayed Kyrie, eleison (“O Lord, have mercy.”). It is reported that he would find in the end that Satan had come along and untied all his knots, forcing him to begin again. Determined to thwart his enemy, he began wrapping his knots seven times across the cord, embedding within each knot the sacred sign of the cross. Unable to withstand the powers of this symbolic emblem, the devil was unable to untie his new knots. Kimberly Winston writes that Orthodox believers continue Saint Anthony’s techniques even today. {8}

Meanwhile, Greek Orthodox Christians carry woolen kombologion (“100 knots on cords”) prayer ropes with 33, 50, or 100 knots. Russian believers carry chotkis (“chaplets”), veritza (“string”), or lievstoka (“ladder”), each made of 103 beads. On the ladders, the beads run parallel to one another, symbolizing Jacob’s ladder of angels, meant to inspire the spiritual climb “toward greater devotion and virtue.” {1}

Early Catholic Prayer Beads
St. Benedict is credited for the institution of the Catholic rosary in the 4th century A.D. He taught his order of monks to pray all 150 Psalms every week. Though it would be more than 1,000 years before the Papacy would officially sanction the use of beads to count prayers, faithful monks throughout the ensuing centuries would count their recitation of the Pslams on beads made from coral, ivory, gemstones, precious metals, wood, clay, and eventually Venetian and Murano glass.

Eventually, practice of the rosary was adopted by laymen, many of whom did not know how to read or speak Latin. It was granted that these men and women could substitute one recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”) for one Psalm. This practice of reciting 150 “Our Fathers” each day became known as the “Pater Noster Psalter.” So popular was its practice that use of the word “pitter-patter” came into popularity to describe the sound of the prayer beads clacking together with the recitation of the Paters.

Medieval-style Rosary (made with coral beads), made by Ladyhawthorne
Photo and Rosary Design Copyright Canterbury Cottage Blog, 2011

Medieval Rosary Practice
During the Medieval Age, carrying or wearing a beaded rosary became the official symbol of Christianity. Many of the rosaries from the 1300s were strung with pomander beads filled with fragrant myrrh, cloves, and musk. Whether the wearer offered this fragrance as an offering to God or whether they wore them to ward off the plague, these rosaries were favored by women, who often added dried fruit, dried flowers, or figurines. {7} Many also added flourishes, including flasks of holy water or relics of saints, but some included talismans, such as heart medallions or good-luck charms. {2}.

Christians today wear crosses or place the fish symbol on their vehicle, but in the 1500s it was common practice for believers to wear a rosary on their arm or in some other prominent place to declare their faith. So widely spread was this practice that even royalty began wearing them. Most of these higher-class rosaries were made from gold, silver, amethysts, jasper, pearls, or jet.

Medieval rosary beads were either round or oval and were strung on ribbons or silk strands and worn as necklaces. Beads were rarely faceted and might include meaningful materials, such as coral, which was believed to have healing powers and guard against the “evil eye.” {2}

By the mid-15th century, people at nearly every level of society carried a rosary. Pilgrims on their way to shrines and churches wore distinctive rosaries about their waists to indicate their religious affiliation, even a few knightly orders adopted rosaries as part of their uniforms.

Rosary Maker
Photo Credit: It's About Time Blog

Paternoster Guilds
During this period, rosaries had become so popular in England that small groups of devotees began to assemble together. Called paternoster guilds, these groups of craftsmen and devotees served as hubs for making rosaries and to engage together in group prayer.

Each of these guilds were known for the materials they specialized in, most choosing some form of wood or glass beads, though some worked with precious stones or metals, as well. You can still visit Paternoster Row near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a place where many of these guilds operated.

The first of these brotherhoods was formed in Northern France by Alanus de Rupe in 1470 AD. Another was organized in Cologne, Germany in 1475. From these rather humble beginnings, active guilds began popping up all over Europe.

By the late 1590s European guilds adopted more universal standards for making rosaries. This may have had something to do with a ruling by the Council of Trent in 1573, when the Dominican Rosary (today’s standard rosary style) was officially adopted.

This circlet of 59 beads includes 50 small beads, divided by one large bead (Pater) into five “decades” (sets of ten). In place of a pendant, these rosaries have a string of three small Antiphon (liturgy) beads and two larger Pater (Our Father) beads which terminate in a crucifix.

Post-Medieval Decade Ring
Photo Credit: Portable Antiquities Database

Decade Rings
In areas where persecution was a threat to Catholics, such as in England or in Ireland, wearing a rosary could land you on pauper’s row or even down a well, so devotees fashioned rings called “tenners” or “decade rings.”

These rings consisted of one large centerpiece with ten small “nobs” around the band. {7} The ten smaller Ave beads were used to recite Hail Mary prayers, and an Our Father was prayed on the larger Pater stone between each set of ten prayers. Even after persecution lifted, these rings remained popular and can still be found in circulation today.

16th and 17th Centuries
Trade between Ireland and Spain during the 16th century resulted in the introduction of the Galway Rosary, which featured a tubular crucifix bearing a “primitive corpus,” a hallmark of many artifacts found in New Spain. {7}

Paternosters slid the string through the hollow crucifix, leaving a tassel at the end. Perhaps Catholic supplicants used these tassels in the same way that Orthodox supplicants did—to wipe away their tears. {5} In addition to these tassels, Galway crosses often featured a Madonna and child carved on the back side.

During the latter part of the 17th century, in Austria and Bavaria, the popularity of the silver filigree rosary, which featured seven decades of coral, crystal, or gemstone Aves divided by sliver filigree Pater beads. Silver filigree beads were also used in Venice, as well.

Ranger Rosary
Photo Credit: Project 59 Canada

18th Century
Prayer beads in the 1800s are characterized by the introduction of pressed glass beads. By the middle of the century glass beads were the most popular. Toward the end of this century, the New World was flooded with ships carrying immigrant Catholics and Orthodox believers who brought their beautiful rosaries into the harbors of New York. Most of these rosaries came from Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. {7}

Modern Rosaries
In 2003, Sargent Frank V. Ristaino founded a group called the Ranger Rosary Ministry. Their organization began sending “rugged combat rosaries” made from combat-zone-safe materials to troops fighting the wart post 9-11. Such materials included dark plastic beads and black crucifixes and strung on black parachute cords. They were distributed by chaplains to service men and women stationed around the world. {7}

As recently as 2007, the filigree rosaries that made their entrance in 18th-centur Austria and Bavaria were still being made in the Bavarian Forest. {7} Author Kimberly Winston reports that Turkish Christians regularly carry Catholic rosaries or Orthodox prayer ropes {8}.

The most popular rosaries made today are those dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Our Lady’s Psalter is counted on rosaries of five decades, separated by four ornate Pater beads, culminating in a “drop,” a crucifix attached to a short string of five extra beads (3 Aves and 2 Paters).

Our Lady in a garland of roses.
Painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What’s in a Name?
While rumors abound that the term “rosary” was adopted from the practice of making rosary beads out of pressed rose petals, this is just a myth. Chris Laning has researched rose petal rosaries extensively and concluded that the first ones were made in the 1920s. {2}

The word rosary actually comes from the Latin word rosarium, which in the context of the Catholic Rosary means “a garden of roses” or a “circle of roses,” and refers not only to the circlets, but also to the practice of reciting the prayers.

Laning reports that the rosary was named after a legend involving some robbers who saw a young monk who had stopped to rest and pray. As the robbers watched, the Virgin Mother presented herself before the monk.

Each time he uttered a “Hail, Mary,” the robbers saw a rose drop from his lips to the ground in front of her. To show her delight in his prayers, she gathered up each rose and wove them into a garland which she put upon her head. {2}

The first official use of the term is credited to St. Benedict, who planted a monastic rose garden, which he called a “rosary,” in the fourth century AD. It was at this time that he instructed his disciples to pray the Psalter of David. It wasn't until the 13th century, when the legend of the Virgin Mary making a rose garland out of the prayers of her faithful monk, that the term rosarium became associated with the psalter.

At that time, rosarium primarily referred to a collection of short stories, prayers, or sections of text. Throughout the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, many different terms were used to describe the strings of prayer beads, including psalterium, rosanum, serto, capelleto, rosarium, and rosaria. It seems as though the word rosary was first used in Germany.

Of note, our English word bead finds its origins in Anglo-Saxon terms for prayer. Bede means prayer, while bidden means “to pray.” Though it seems that beads were first used as currency in early civilizations, it is no surprise that the correlation between these round beauties and the act of prayer soon became correlated, such that the very name for them would be synonymous with prayer.

Read about Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim prayer beads.


1. Encylopedia Britannica Online. “Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
2. Laning, Chris. “Historical Rosary and Paternoster Beads.” Paternoster-Row website, 2007-2009.
3. Museum of Anthropology. University of Missouri. “Prayer Beads: A Cultural Experience.” Copyright 2011. Last updated October 22, 2012.
4. Prayer Beads World (website). “Prayer Beads in Islam.” Copyright 2008. Accessed October 22, 2012.
5. Roman, Alexander. To Bead or Knot to Bead: Some Historical Considerations. As found on Chotkis website on October 22, 2012.
6. Rosarium, The. “About” Accessed October 22, 2012.
7. Rosary Workshop. “Journaling the Bead: A History of the Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
8. Winston, Kimberly. Bead One, Pray Too. New York: Moorehouse Publishing, 2008.

*Clip-art courtesy of The Graphics Fairy