A Japa Mala is a type of prayer bead used in Hinduism, Budhdism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Shinto religions for the practice of japa. This usually involves counting or reciting a mantra or chant while counting over the beads. Most commonly such a necklace would have 108 beads, a number which has spiritual significance in many traditions in addition to a semeru bead.
Variations of Usage
While some Hindu traditions maintain that the proper way to use a japa mala is by holding it with the right hand and using the thumb to flick through the beads while counting, with the japa mala hung over the middle finger. Under this pretense, the index finger is thought to represent one's ego and typically is not used while holding the mantra.
However, in other areas, such as Northeast India, the mala is placed around the ring finger, pushing the beads with the middle finger and thumb, while avoiding use of the index finger. In such areas, it is usuallly acceptable to place the japa mala over the middle finger as well.
In Vedic traditions, if a practitioner wishes to complete more then 108 repetitions of a mantra, the direction is reversed once hitting the semeru.
A japa mala can be made from just about anything from plant seeds to gemstones. Rudraksha, tulsi, sandalwood and lotus seeds are all quite popular. In other regions, such as Tibet, animal bone is sometimes used. Buddhist traditions vary a lot in this regard and some traditions even use different colored gemstones and materials for different spiritual practices.