What is Prayer Jewelry?? (Part 2: The Mala)

What is Prayer Jewelry??

Part 2: The Mala

mala gray lavender small

Lavender Stretch Mala, Bead World

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In part 1 of our prayer jewelry talk we covered rosaries.  In case you missed it, click HERE to check it out!  Now we’ll talk about the other prayer jewelry powerhouse, the mala!!

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The Mala:

While rosaries may be the most widely known prayer jewelry, malas are quickly gaining steam.  They have become increasingly popular thanks to both the fashion industry and the growing yoga movement.  It is the single most common jewelry trend that we have seen over the past few years, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all.  Every single day, multiple clients come to Bead World to get supplies to make a mala.  We’re constantly fielding questions about what a mala is, how to make a mala, how to use a mala, etc.

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Also known as a Japa Mala, the mala is essentially a garland of beads used as a counting aid and a focusing tool while meditating or saying mantras.  In Sanskrit, mala means garland and japa means recitation, so loosely translated a Japa Mala is a garland used for recitation.  Malas seem to have been in use since sometime between the 8th and 10th century – there’s a bit of a discrepancy on whether they originated in the 8th or 10th century, so we’ll just say sometime in there.  It is believed that they originated in India and malas have been used by many groups of people including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and others.  Interestingly, there is a story that when Romans were trading with India they mistook “japa” for “jap”, which is the Latin word for rose.  This led the Romans to refer to mala beads as “rosarium”, which is “rosary” in English, so in a way even the rosary stemmed from a mala if this story is accurate.

Mala - The Soulful Bloom

Self-Love Mala, The Soulful Bloom

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While there are different versions of the mala depending on the culture and belief system, the most common style of mala has 108 beads and a 109th bead that we commonly refer to as the guru.  This 109th bead is also called a sumeru, bindu, stupa, meru, summit, mountain, etc.  Sometimes instead of 108 beads a mala will have 54 beads (1/2 mala) or 27 beads (1/4 mala), or any other amount that can be multiplied to get to 108.  At the bottom of the guru bead is often a tassel, charm, pendant, or whatever you choose.  A mala can be strung on stretch magic/soft flex, knotted, wire wrapped, or anything else you can think of.  Typically malas are made with wood, seeds, nuts, and/or gemstones, but they can be made with any beads you’d like!  Most people currently make their malas with either 6mm, 8mm, or 10mm round beads, but don’t feel like you’re bogged down into that box.  You can make a mala out of any 108 beads that you want.  They don’t even have to be the same bead all the way around.  Some designs actually include different beads intentionally to re-focus your mind in case it has started to wander.  Get creative and see what you come up with!!

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Here is our Easy Mala Necklace Tutorial and our Chain Tassel Tutorial with more information on how to make a mala and how to make a fun chain tassel!

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The purpose of the 108 beads is to focus your energy and intention as you meditate or to give you something to count as you say your mantras.  There are many explanations for why there are 108 beads.  The most simple is the idea that something needs to be said 100 times to make it be so, and you’re bound to mess up a few times so saying something 108 times will probably do the trick.  The number 108 appears to have a lot of significance though.  If you search for the meanings of 108 beads you’ll get a whole list of possibilities, but one of my favorites is that there are 108 energy lines that come together to form the heart chakra.  One of these energy lines (sushumna) leads to the crown chakra and is believed to be the path to self-realization.  Other common explanations for the significance of the number 108 include:

108 mortal desires of mankind

108 Upanishads (sacred texts)

27 constellations in the universe with 4 quadrants for each constellation(27×4=108)

54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet with a masculine & feminine version of each letter (54×2=108)

108 breaths in a day is said to bring enlightenment

108 stages on the journey of the human soul

Willow Rose Mala

Dragon’s Blood Jasper & Bayong Wood Mala, Willow Rose

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Just as there are variations on how to make a mala, there are also multiple ways to use a mala.  It is up to you if you will use your mala as a meditation tool or not.  A nice place to start is by setting your intention for your mala.  To do this, get in a quiet & comfortable space, hold your mala, close your eyes, and state your intention while impart your mala with the energy you want it to bring you.  Some people choose to keep their mala with them or in a special place as a visual reminder of their intention.  Others use their mala as a meditation tool – either helping them to maintain their focus while meditating, or using it as a counting tool while saying mantras or affirmations.  Our minds have a tendency to wander, so this physical act of holding a mala is believed to keep us centered and focused.

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To use your mala for counting, hold your mala between your thumb and middle finger on your right hand.  Point your index finger away from you – your index finger is said to represent ego and should not touch your mala when counting.  Start with the bead closest to your guru bead and use your thumb to move through the beads, reciting your mantra, focusing your energy, or taking a breath at each bead.  When you reach your guru bead you have completed your mala.  You are not supposed to cross over your guru, so if you feel like doing another pass of the mala, just turn your mala around and start again.  You can repeat your mala as many times as you feel are needed.  Some people believe that mantras should be given to you by your guru and are representative of something you’re working on at the time.  There is a universal mantra that everyone can use, however: “Om Mani Padme Hum”.  It can be difficult to translate from Sanskrit, but some say that this loosely translates to “May all the suffering of the world be released.”  Beautiful, right??  If that mantra does not speak to you, you can search online for other mantras or create your own affirmation based on what you want to focus on.

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There are some traditional “rules” about malas that are interesting to know.  Initially, malas were not meant to be worn as jewelry.  It was seen as boasting your wealth.  They were intended to be used as prayer beads and kept as a personal sacred item.  That’s why some people wear their malas under their clothing or not at all.  It was also important to be conscious about how you used/held your mala and where you kept it.  It was to be kept in a clean place and you were not supposed to let your mala touch the ground, your feet, or your left hand.  Additionally, a mala was not to be passed between people, shared, or given away.  It was believed that each mala was a specific person’s and matched that person’s energy.

black onyx mantra mala

Black Onyx Mantra Mala, Bead World

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The Takeaway:

Personally when it comes to prayer jewelry, I feel like it is so important to know the history and understand the intentions.  This helps us to keep the sacredness in mind and treat them with honor. However, I also believe that it’s ok to make them your own.  After all, prayer beads originated because people decided that it made sense for their spiritual practice.  There are variations because over time other people decided that adjustments or different versions made sense to their spiritual practice.  With prayer jewelry, it is all about what fits your spirituality.  Don’t feel confined to the information I shared with you here!!  If something else feels right for you, do it.  Think about the rule of not wearing malas – obviously many of us have thrown that idea out the window and have chosen to wear our malas.  For some people it still doesn’t resonate with them; for others it’s a way to be constantly reminded of their intentions throughout their day.  Not into the spiritual aspect at all but like the way they look??  That’s ok too!  As long as we’re all being respectful of the sacred nature of these beautiful prayer beads, it’s ok to adapt them to our own lives.  Make them work for you and your beliefs!!

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Happy Beading!!

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2 comments on “What is Prayer Jewelry?? (Part 2: The Mala)
  1. Frances says:

    Thank you! I, too, like to know the history and the intentions of any jewelry that has specific cultural identity. This article was well researched, beautifully written and very respectful of other ideas and beliefs. Now that I know more about them, I think I will make a Japa Mala for me using beads that I have been gifted to me or that I have found that seemed to call to me. Again, thank you.

    • Bailey Ienuso says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words!! I was really hoping to write a post that both shared the information and was respectful and honoring of the cultures that the mala comes from. Please share pictures of your mala with us on our social media pages when you create it!! I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

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