Beads have played a very important role in man's history. From decorative objects and jewels to trade beads, talismans and prayer beads, beads in every possible material have always been here, close to our body and soul.
The word bead derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word "bede" (prayer). The use of beads for religious purposes is believed to originate from Hinduism, about 29 centuries ago. Buddhists and Muslims after them, adopted this use as well. Christian rosaries became of use later on, during the Middle Ages.
Although this is the common belief in the timeline of prayer beads history, there are indices that strings of beads, known as "worship garlands", in the standard circular form, common in all prayer beads representing the eternal flow, seem to be present in other cultures as well, as in the ancient pagan Minoan civilization, as a Thera fresco indicates - more than 36 centuries ago.
Whatever the shape, the material and the faith, prayer beads used for religious reasons have one, common feature: to assist in reciting and counting prayers or mantras or names and reach another, superior state of consciousness and perception in the everlasting human effort to come closer to the divine.
Hindu and Buddhist prayer beads are called japa mala (matra garland) or just mala (garland). As the name indicates, japa mala is used to count the repeated mantra, a practice that stimulates spiritual exercise and meditation.
Malas usually have 108 beads plus the central, bigger "guru" bead, although 27 or 54 beads may also be used and sometimes extra counters to count more than one full, 108 times repetition are added. The number 108 is a sacred number, as it represents the 108 Brahmins (preachers-educators) that were present at Buddha's birth, or the 108 temples and sources that are visible only to those who have a pure mind.
Most common materials are rudraksha seeds, bones, semi-precious stones, sandalwood among others.
Muslim prayer beads are called tasbih (or tesbih), or masbaha (or misbaha, mesbah) or subha according the countries they originate from. They consist of 99 beads that correspond to the 99 names-virtues of Allah, plus the central, bigger bead called "imame".
In a simplified version, only 33 beads can be used and one must continue the counting-recitation 2 more times so that the prayer and names' recitation is complete, reaching the number 99. In another version, 45 beads are used. In all these versions, there is always a number of smaller beads, called shahid beads that are positioned in specific, equal intervals in order to separate the whole piece in three equal parts.
In the countries of North Africa mainly, prayer beads may have 100 beads, separated by shahid beads in equal parts of 25 beads.
Many materials are used for Muslim prayer beads, from valuable, rare ones to the most common.
Rosary or chaplet is the Catholic form of prayer beads. Similar shaped prayer instruments, known as prayer ropes are used as well by Orthodox Christians, but they are usually made of a string of wool tied to form knots that are the equivalent of beads.
Both rosary and prayer ropes are introduced in the Christian religion by hermit Paul, St. Pahomius and St. Hilda, when Christian Church was united, well before the 1054 schism that divided it into Catholic and Orthodox.
The word rosary derives from the "rosarium" Latin word that means rose garden or garland of roses.
Rosaries are used by Roman Catholics and some Anglicans believers. Rosary is formed by 50 beads separated to 5 equal parts, the decades, plus 9 small elements placed between the beads of the decade, and one bigger bead between each decade. Different prayers are recited on each kind of bead. Hail Mary (Ave Maria) is recited on the decade beads, while Our Father is recited on the large beads.
A variation of this type is the 150 beads rosary, namely 15 separated decades with other elements same as before. This type of rosary is mainly used by religious orders, and the 15 decades correspond to the traditional 15 mysteries.
Instead of the guru or imame bead, rosary's central point - the point where the edges of the string pass and are joined - is a metallic element that usually has on one side Jesus and on the other side Virgin Mary depicted. After that point, 5 beads are added and the piece closes - or rather begins, since prayers begin from this point - with a crucifix style cross.
Many materials are used for the rosaries, from seeds to semi-precious and precious stones.
Catholic prayer beads are not limited to rosaries. Other forms of catholic prayer beads are:
Cross Chapel: it consists of 33 beads, representing the 33 years that Jesus lived on earth, divided in sections of 4 different colors that represent the 4 apostles and the 4 ways of human perception: intuition, thinking, sensing, feeling.
Trinity Chapel: is equally formed by 33 beads in total. The 27 beads are separated in 3 equal parts of different colors. The first third, named "heaven" is used for prayers to God, the second one, named "blood" is used for prayers to Jesus and finally the third part, named "new life" is dedicated to Holy Spirit.
Many other forms of chapels in forms different or similar to the rosary with some variations exist.
A recently (after 1980) developed form of prayer beads is the Anglican prayer beads, known as well as Anglican rosary. It consists as well of 33 beads representing Jesus' years on earth, divided into 4 groups of 7 beads, called weeks, with 4 additional larger beads separating the weeks, called cruciform beads. The set is completed by the 33rd bead on top, called invitatory bead and the cross at the end, that can be either in crucifix design or other.