What is a Mala?

7 Apr

What is a Mala?

Mala style necklaces are pretty popular lately.  The long beaded necklace with a tassel can be seen on fashion pages all over the internet and are being sold everywhere from department stores to high end jewelry stores.


But malas or other forms of prayer beads are much more than just a fashion accessory.  The original purpose of prayer beads was to count prayers.  The use of beads to count prayers may have originated with the Hindus in India somewhere between 185 B.C. – 320 A.D.

Although the number, arrangement and materials  of prayer beads are different with each religion, one link that seems to run between religions is the use of multiples of three in the number of beads used.  The Buddhist triad (Buddha, the doctrine, and the community), the Roman Catholic Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost).  Buddhist and Hindu malas have 108 beads.  Muslim strands include 99 beads and Roman Catholic rosaries have 150.

The ideas that these strands of beads embody are universal.  The very act of pausing on a bead brings you back to the center of where and who you are.

The circular form of the necklace has significance as well; the cyclical flow of nature and of the human seasons: birth, life, death and rebirth.  Many cultures have honored circles as enclosed places of mystical protection, symbolically bringing people together to ward off the advent of danger.

Hindu Mala

The Hindu mala is composed of 108 beads, with an extra meru bead and a tassel marking the beginning of the cycle.  The word meru recalls the mythological holy mountain at the centre of the Hindu cosmic universe.

Hindu malas are used for the repetition of a mantra or divine name.  By constantly invoking holy names and syllables the devotee is brought closer to the presence of God and in so doing, discovers the true nature of humankind, which is pure, eternal and free.


Buddhist Mala

The ultimate goal of every practicing Buddhist is Buddhahood or nirvana, a permanent and supreme state of bliss which ends the constant cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  Chanting and contemplation with prayer beads is one of the principal routes to this form of liberation.

The central prayer chanted in conjunction with the mala in Tibetan Buddhism is Om Mani Padme Hum (O thou jewel in the Lotus, hail).

Buddhist prayer beads consist of 108 beads, corresponding to the number of sinful desires that can be overcome by recitation with the beads.  The circle of beads is marked by a tassel and guru bead which is a reminder to the devotee of the importance of having a spiritual teacher.  Gu means “dark” and ru means “light”.  The guru leads you out of spiritual darkness and towards enlightenment.

Your Mala

You don’t have to be religious however to wear and use a mala or strand of prayer beads.  If you’re purchasing a finished mala, make sure it is one that really speaks to you and to the way you wish to use it.  If you’re creating your own mala the act of choosing and stringing the beads should be done keeping in mind your intention for your finished mala.  Even if you don’t use your mala for prayer or meditation simply wearing it will be a reminder to seek calm and stillness in your heart wherever you are.


“Deliberately holding the beads can in itself be the prayer, especially when the mind seems unable to formulate any meaningful thoughts.  The chain of beads can reach far beyond itself, bonding us with a higher power…” ~ B. Pennington

When we are still, we can perceive things as they are.
When we are still – when the mind is still,
when we are not making things crazy –
there is clarity.  ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future,
concentrate the mind on the present moment.  ~ Buddha

Parts of this post are extracted from the book “Beads of Faith”, Gray Henry & Susannah Marriott

I’ve put together a tutorial for making your own mala which you can find on my website:

Buddhist Amulets, Tsa Tsa

6 Jun

Buddhist Amulets – Tsa-tsa

Buddha Amulet - Tsa Tsa

Any traveller venturing into remote areas where Buddhism is practiced will certainly come across examples of clay tablets deposited within stupas, holy caves and monastery alters. These clay tablets are known as tsa-tsa and are believed to have originated in India. In Eastern India tsa-tsa dating from the 8th century have been found in Buddhist ruins.

Clay Tsa Tsa Buddha Amulets placed at sacred site.

Tsa-tsa are clay impressions made with a metal mold containing the hollowed, reversed image of a deity or sacred symbol. The stamped images are dried in the sun and in some cases fired into hardness. In many cases the amulets may be empowered by engraving a mantra on the back. The reverent method by which these amulets are produced ensures that each one is transformed into a receptacle for sacred power.

Tsa-tsa were traditionally created in connection with pilgrimages to sacred places. Travelers carried metal molds with them to sacred sites and upon arrival would collect holy clay to make the tablets reciting mantras while they worked. This activity was considered a meritorious action which generated an abundant dose of auspiciousness for the creator and his family. Sometimes a pilgrim would stay in a place for weeks pressing an auspicious number of amulets. Some of these would usually be left at the site as offerings. Others would be kept or shared as sacred objects.

Clay Tsa Tsa Buddha Amulets placed at sacred site

Tsa-tsa traditionally played an important role in funeral practices. After a person passed away a ceremony was performed which might have lasted several weeks. A lama would read from sacred text in front of an effigy of the deceased. At the conclusion of the readings the paper print representing the deceased would be burned in a final ceremony, mixed with clay and a number of tsa-tsa would be created by a relative or close friend. These amulets would have been deposited at the gates of a monastery or left under the ledges of a sacred site. Funeral tsa-tsa would not have been kept in the home.

Clay Buddha Tsa Tsa Amulet Pendant in Brass Setting

The use of tsa-tsa is not confined to areas of Tibetan influence only. In southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Burma tsa-tsa are extremely valued as amulets and often worn around the neck.

Clay Buddha Tsa Tsa Amulet Pendant

These amulets are still being produced in the traditional clay form as well as in cast metal. The clay amulets are often placed in cases or frames for protection.

I am not a Buddhist, but I wear a small amulet frequently.  The jewelry I personally wear is always simple and always has a spiritual element whether it is outwardly evident or not.  I’ll choose a stone that resonates with me, an antique piece whose history speaks to me, or an amulet such as these.  In our busy lives it is important to have something that reminds us to be grateful and to see the beauty in every person and every moment.


Parts of this post are extracted from “Juan Li: Images of Earth and Water, The Tsa Tsa Votive Tablets of Tibet

Haida Gwaii – Argillite Art

29 May

Haida People

It is unclear how the first people arrived on the the archipelago formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands; but what is certain is that possibly as far back as 13,000 years ago, a group of people inhabited these Islands and developed a culture made rich by the abundance of the land and sea. These people became the Haida.  They are a linguistically distinct group, and they have a complex class and rank system consisting of two main clans: Eagles and Ravens.

Haida Gwaii MapIn 1787 the islands were surveyed by Captain George Dixon, an English explorer.  They were named the Queen Charlotte Islands after one of his ships.  In 2010 the name was officially changed to recognize the history of the Haida people.  Haida Gwaii means “land of the people”.

The Haida are widely known for their art and architecture, both of which traditionally focused on the creative embellishment of wood. They decorated utilitarian objects with depictions of supernatural and other beings in a highly conventionalized style. They also produced elaborate totem poles with carved and painted crests.

Haida Gwaii art on building and totemHaida Art

Haida art stems from Haida life, past and present.  Haida art is the visual companion to Haida language, both of which are born from their connection to the lands, waters and supernatural beings of Haida Gwaii.  Whether painted, carved, tattooed, woven or appliqued the “art of the clan” signifies lineage, rank and history.


Haida artists have been carving with the Argillite found on Haida Gwaii for several hundred years.  Argillite is a fine-grained sedimentary rock composed predominantly of hardened clay particles.  Haida argillite may also be referred to as “black slate”.  It is found near Skidegate on Slatechuck Mountain on one of the Islands of Haida Gwaii located off the northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada.

The Argillite quarry is very difficult to get to and its exact location is a heavily guarded secret.  Only the Haida people have the right to use the Argillite found at Slatechuck Creek.  Haida Argillite does not contain quartz or feldspar and that, along with its highly complex matrix make it different from other Argillites found around the world.

Haida Symbolism

In Northwest Coast Native culture there are ancient traditional legends in which the world of man and the animals is closely linked.  Native Indian tribes across North America have creation stories, which tell of the human-like qualities of the animals.

Haida Carved Argillite Bear PendantBear symbolizes strength, family, vitality, courage and health.  Known as the Protector of the animal kingdom Bear is the most powerful coastal animal.

Haida Argillite Carved Eagle PendantEagle is king of birds and is revered for his beauty and regal nature.  He is the most respected of all birds and signifies peace, spirituality and friendship.  Eagle is recognizable by its hooked beak.

Haida Carved Argillite Orca PendantOrca symbolizes family, longevity, harmony, travel and protection.  Orca is said to protect those who travel away from home and lead them back when the time comes.

Haida Carved Argillite Raven PendantRaven is the transformer, trickster and creator. Known in legends as the one who released the sun, moon, and stars; discovered man in a clamshell; brought the salmon and the water; and taught man how to fish and hunt.  Raven symbolizes creation, knowledge and truth.

Haida Carved Argillite Salmon PendantSalmon are honoured and celebrated by all coastal peoples.  They serve as a powerful symbol of regeneration, self-sacrifice and perseverance.

Haida Argillite Carved Seal PendantSeal represents wealth and plenty and is an important family crest. It is a favourite theme of northern bowl carvers, probably because it was an important source of oil and its meat and blubber were significant foods at feasts.

Haida Argillite Carved Wolf PendantWolf represents loyalty, strong family ties, good communication, education, understanding and intelligence.  Of all land animals the Wolf is believed to have the strongest supernatural powers and is the most accomplished hunter.

The above Haida carved Argillite pendants are available for sale: Sunstones Gems & Jewelry

Nyaminyami – The Legend of the Zambezi River God

20 May
Nyaminyami Zambezi River God Pendant

Nyaminyami, Zambezi River God Pendant

The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa and the largest river that flows into the Indian Ocean from Africa.  With a length of over 2500 kilometers, the river flows from Zambia, through eastern Angola, along the eastern border of Namibia, across the northern border of Botswana, along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe finally crossing through Mozambique and emptying into the Indian Ocean.

The people of the BaTonga tribe of Zimbabwe lived in the Zambezi River Valley for many centuries.  Despite existing in a flood plain, the Batonga people learned to live with the river relying on the fertile soil, plentiful water and food sources that the Zambezi provided.

BaTonga legends told of a dragon-like creature with a snake’s torso and the head of a fish, which they called Nyaminyami.  This creature was said to live in the river and control life in and on the waters of the Zambezi.  Nyaminyami is said to reside under a rock in the Zambezi River, protecting both the river from damage and the resident Batonga people from harm.

Nyaminyami Zambezi River

Zambezi River

In the 1950’s work began on a hydro-electric dam in the Kariba Gorge of the Zambezi River Basin between Zambia and Zimbabwe.  The BaTonga people were told to leave their homes and move away from the river to avoid the flood that the dam would cause.  Reluctantly they allowed themselves to be resettled higher up the bank, but they believed Nyaminyami would never allow the dam to be built and eventually, when the project failed, they would move back to their homes.

In 1957, when the dam was well on its way to completion, Nyaminyami struck. The worst floods ever known on the Zambezi washed away much of the partly built dam and the heavy equipment, killing many of the workers.  After the disaster, flow patterns of the river were studied to ascertain whether there was a likelihood of another flood and it was agreed a flood of comparable intensity would only occur once every thousand years.

The very next rainy season, however, brought further floods even worse than the previous year. Nyaminyami had struck again, destroying the coffer dam, the access bridge and parts of the main wall.  The project survived however, and the great river was eventually controlled. In 1960 the generators were switched on and have been supplying electricity to Zimbabwe and Zambia ever since.

The BaTonga still live on the shores of Lake Kariba, and many still believe that one day Nyaminyami will fulfill his promise and they will be able to return to their homes on the banks of the river.

Nyaminyami Zambezi River God Pendant

Nyaminyami, Zambezi River God Pendant

Amulets depicting Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River God are believed to offer protection both on and off the water and are sought out by adventurists and fishermen visiting the Zambezi River.  Recently the legend of Nyaminyami was featured on an episode of “River Monsters” on Discovery.  Fisherman/Adventurer Jeremy Wade goes after a Giant Vundu underneath the Kariba Dam.  Watch video.

The pendants shown here are hand carved in African Verdite stone and Bone and are available for purchase on my website: sunstonesbeads.ca
These pieces are purchased directly from the carver in Zimbabwe who supports his family with his art.

Fabergé – An Easter Tradition

28 Mar


The Fabergé family can be traced back to 17th century France.  Gustav Fabergé trained as a goldsmith apprenticing with the firm of Keibel, goldsmiths and jewelers to the Tsars.  In 1841 he earned the title of Master Goldsmith and the next year he opened his own retail jewelry shop. In 1882, at the age of 36, Gustav’s son Carl Fabergé was also awarded the title of Master Goldsmith and took over the running of the business.

In 1885, Tsar Alexander III commissioned the House of Fabergé to make an Easter egg as a gift for his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna. The “First Hen Egg” or “Jeweled Hen Egg” is a Tsar Imperial Fabergé Egg, the first in a series of fifty-four jeweled eggs made under the supervision of Carl Fabergé for the Russian Imperial family.

Empress Maria was so delighted by this gift that Alexander appointed Fabergé a “goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown”. He commissioned another egg the following year. After that, Fabergé was given complete freedom for future Imperial Easter Eggs and from this date, the designs became more elaborate.  Not even the Tsar knew the designs in advance.  The only requirement was that each one should contain a surprise.


After losing everything when the House of Fabergé was nationalised by the Bolsheviks the family was forced to flee Russia during the Russian Revolution in 1917.  For a time they even lost all rights to produce and market designs under the Fabergé name.  In 2007 the company was purchased and the Fabergé brand was reunified with the the family and the brand is now forging a fresh and strong identity in tune with its original values, aesthetics and spirit.  Fabergé was re-launched on September 9, 2009 with Carl Fabergé’s great-grand-daughters helping to guide the way. On July 6, 2011 the company launched two collections of egg pendants.  These were the first to have been made by Fabergé since 1917.



Fabergé on Pinterest

%d bloggers like this: