A mala is string of beads used to keep count while practicing japa (chanting of a prayer). In many religious practices it is said that a prayer should be recited 27, 54 or 108 times. Similarly, Malas have 27, 54 or 108 beads with 1 bigger bead also known as the Sumeru or Guru bead. The Sumeru bead is the starting and ending point of each set of japa (recitation).
One starts the practice of Japa with the first bead next to the sumeru bead and continues around the Mala pulling each bead through the ring or middle finger towards the heart. When one full rotation of the Mala is completed, one does not cross over the sumeru bead, one simply rotates the mala and continues to recite in the opposite direction. The sumeru bead is considered to be the goal you wish to achieve in your spiritual practice, and hence you are always striving towards it.
Generally one practices japa whilst sitting down cross legged on the floor, holding the Mala in the right hand above the heart. Holding the Mala above the heart helps in preventing one from falling asleep.
If you think that the act of chanting a mantra induces certain charged vibrations of energy, then by using a mala for japa, those energy vibrations are stored within the beads of a mala. It is therefore advisable to use a new mala when starting to use a new mantra.
Watch our little interview with the local priest at the Shiva Temple in Delhi, India.