Grace Lower | Mar 28, 2022
The mala necklace. That extra-long beaded accessory has the look and feel of exotic beach vibes, yogi-surfer style, and mindful spirituality. But what does it actually signify and why does it have 108 beads?
There has been a rise in people in western culture, especially among today’s spiritual-seeking nomads, wearing mala necklaces. With the rise of wellness travel, so too follows an increased popularity of this cultural necklace as a fashion accessory. However, most people who wear them are likely unaware of what it fully signifies let alone have used it for its traditional purpose: counting mantras in meditation.
The trend of wearing malas might be “new” to western travelers, but it actually dates back thousands of years. The history of prayer beads is believed to have originated in India around the eighth century B.C.E. Many of today’s religions also use beaded necklaces — mala, rosary, subha — to help meditate and recite prayers. The English word bead even comes from the Anglo-Saxon words bede and bidden which mean “prayer" and “to pray.”
It’s good to note that you don’t have to be religious to wear or use a mala. It is important, though, to understand its use and respect its significance.
The beads in a traditional mala are rudraksha seeds, produced by several species of large evergreen trees associated with the Hindu deity Shiva. In the yogic tradition, the beads are used in japamala practice, reciting mantras in meditation.
A full cycle of 108 repetitions is counted on the mala so the practitioner can focus on the sounds, vibration, and meaning of what is being said. A simple and common example of a Sanskrit mantra often chanted at the end of a yoga class would be om shanti shanti shanti, which is a calling out to connect us with inner peace.
So why 108 repetitions? This is a question with hundreds of answers. The number 108 has seemingly limitless meanings across various philosophical, scientific, and religious beliefs. Some of the most interesting are:
There is a 109th bead that hangs at the bottom of a mala, called either the sumeru, bindu, stupa, or guru bead. This often symbolizes the guru from whom the student received the mala or mantra, paying homage to the student-guru relationship. It is never counted among the repetitions but used as a marker for a start and end of a cycle.
Now that you know your basic Mala 101 (er, Mala 108?), hopefully you can find the time with your necklace to practice its formal use and have a deeper respect and understanding of why they’re worn, especially if you’re wearing one while traveling through countries where they’re traditionally used.
Clearly, the mala necklace is so much more than a new-age fashion statement or proof of your nomadic worldliness. As you explore, whether for wellness travel, to learn about other cultures, or simply to enjoy the variety of fashions you find in other regions, protect your trip and health with travel insurance. Learn more about Seven Corners’ plans before your next adventure.