A mala(also referred to as japa mala) is a string of beads used in both Buddhism and Hinduism for counting prayers, mantras or chants.   From the Hindu perspective, they are made on the principle of the sacred number 108.  They can also be made with any number divisible by 108, such as 54 or 27.  Why 108?   Renowned mathematicians of Vedic culture viewed 108 as a number of the wholeness of existence.  This number connects the Sun, Moon, and Earth: The average distance of the Sun and the Moon to Earth is 108 times their respective diameters.  According to yogic tradition, there are 108 pithas, or sacred sites, throughout India.  There are also 108 Upanishads(fundamental teachings of Hinduism) and 108 marma points, or sacred places of the body.  However, it is important to note that throughout history other religions, such as Christianity, have also used prayer beads.  The Catholic rosary for example.

To use a mala, hold it in your right hand for Hindu tradition, or left hand for Buddhist tradition. With it resting gently over your middle finger, use your thumb to gently pull each bead toward you as you recite your mantra, prayer, or chant..once for each bead.  The mountain stone(meru or guru) is not counted so you begin with the 1st bead to the side of it and continue counting with all 108 beads.  When you get to the mountain stone you turn the mala around and mantra, chant or pray again through the 108 beads.  To empower the mala it is said to practice each day for 40 continuous days with the same mantra, prayer, or chant.  The mala then becomes empowered with the energy of the mantra.