Prayer beads are used all over the world in many major religions to help people keep track of the number of prayers they utter. Each necklace of beads, made from wood, stone, gems, ivory, seeds, pits, bone, shell, or berries, has a particular number of counters. These correspond to the correct, often holy, number of prayers that must be repeated in one sitting or one day. Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Hinduism all have a long history of distributing prayer beads, known by various names, to both religious leaders and lay practitioners.
It is thought that the concept of using beads collected on a string as counters was derived from the Chinese abacus, where different colors of a small number of beads were used to count large numbers. Before this, people often knotted and unknotted string to keep track of important counts of devotions, repentance, or mantras. The length of prayer beads might vary by occasion, such as funerals, births, or seasonal holidays, or for different groups, like men, women, and holy figures.
From China, prayer beads spread throughout the globe, taken up by many religions. People needed to keep track of how many prayers they said and how many remained in a standard prayer cycle. A person begins praying on a special first bead, and thereafter grasps each successive bead while they mutter or intone a certain, short line, until they have returned to the last bead, so counting doesn't interfere with their religious reflection.
The number and material of beads are as varied as the cultures that use them. Even within the same general religion, people adopt regional differences to reflect abundant natural materials, or local myths and folklore recognized as significant. Often, the number of prayers, in turn, correspond to the eras of human development, the names of gods, the stages of forgiveness, some places that are sanctified, or the paths toward enlightenment.
To better illustrate the variety and beauty of prayer beads, let's look at their diverse materials and religious applications. In Islam, prayer beads are called subha. The beads are usually made from clay and number 99 standard beads plus one differently colored marker to indicate the beginning and end of a cycle. Hindus use the mala to count their 32-108 prayers on the seeds of the Rudraskha tree. Their divisions are made with charms such as a bell or metal thunderbolt.
Catholics call their prayer beads a rosary, and this can be sculpted from wood, stone, glass, or other materials. A hanging cross divides the loop to show the end of the 150 prayers. The prayer beads in Buddhism were originally crafted from the wood of the holy Bodhi tree, beneath which Buddha became enlightened. The 108 beads are further divided into three segments of 36 each in Tibetan Buddhism. They may make their strands from beads of bone, shell, or amber.