Malas typically have 108 mala beads (or 111 if marker beads are used). Hand malas often consist of multiples of 9 – 18 or 27 beads are commonly used. The number 108 has myriad connotations. It is connected with ancient numerology and astronomy in which it is seen as a multiple of 9 x 12 – the 9 planets and the 12 houses of the zodiac and also of 4 x 27 – the 4 phases of the moon and the 27 lunar “mansions” or constellations. In numerology, 9 is a magic number. Any number multiplied by 9 will result in a number where the sum of its digits is 9, e.g. 1+8=9; 2+7=9. In the Vedic tradition, 108 was central in the construction of the fire altar. And in the Buddhist tradition, there are 108 kleshas or afflicted mental states that are obstacles to fully awakened compassionate mind. The recitation of mantras on a mala is a means to overcome these confused mental blockages. In the Tibetan tradition there are 108 volumes to the Kangyur – the entire Buddhist canon. The bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig), has 108 different forms and names. From a more worldly point of view, some say that the 8 beads insure that a cycle of at least 100 are accumulated correctly.
The use of 100 beads in a mala had an unlikely connection to espionage by the British in the mid-1800s. Both Russia and Britain were vying for influence over Central Asia and geographical intelligence needed to be gathered. Two British agents fluent in Tibetan walked from Ladakh to Lhasa. Their compass and maps were concealed in a prayer wheel. Altitude was measured by the changing boiling points of water. And distance was recorded by counting steps. An agent trained himself to make 2000 steps per mile, which he counted on a 100-bead mala. This data later proved to be remarkably accurate.
Counters, two strings each with discs of 10 usually terminating in a Vajra (Tibetan: dorje; the masculine symbol of skillful means) and a Bell (Tibetan: ghanta: the feminine principle of emptiness) seem to have originated with the Tibetans. On the Vajra string, a disc is moved down for each full round of mantras completed. The Bell discs record 1000s. For larger numbers sometimes a third or fourth counter is added to a mala.