What is a japa mala?

Mala beads are a string of beads used to count mantras (Sanskrit prayers) in sets of 27, 54 or 108 repetitions. The large meru (mountain) bead provides a starting and ending point on the mala for counting the repetitions. Mala beads are an ancient tool that was developed to keep the mind focused on the practice of meditation.

Mala beads are seen in other cultures and religions and are also known as prayer beads, rosary beads and worry beads. Over two-thirds of the world’s population employ some type of prayer beads as part of their spiritual practice. The use of beads in prayer appears to have originated around the 8th century B.C.E. in India.

Mala beads are typically made out of different materials, and the properties of the beads are said to have specific energetic effects. Different spiritual practices and religious traditions historically have used beads of a specific material.

Mala is a Sanskrit word meaning garland. Japa means recitation, and it is traditionally used as an adjective and combined to form Japa Mala (prayer beads for meditation). Japa mala was adopted into other languages as the use and popularity of prayer beads spread. When the Romans invaded India, they mistook japa for jap, the Latin word for rose. Upon returning to Rome, mala beads were referred to as rosarium and later became known as rosary beads in English.