The main body of a mala is usually 108 beads, though other numbers are also used. In addition, there is often a 109th bead (often of a distinctive size or colour) and/or tassle and sometimes there are additional beads which may be decorative or used for counting rounds. Malas are used for keeping count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra or the name or names of a deity.
The specific origin of the mala is unknown, with the use of beads for counting being a widespread practice in ancient cultures. No references to malas occur in Chinese literature before the introduction of Buddhism during the Han dynasty, suggesting that the practice spread from India to China and may have originated there. No mention of a mala occurs in the Agamas or Pali Nikayas, generally regarded as the oldest Buddhist literature, and it is unclear if their use originated with Buddhists or with Brahmins, Jains, or another Indian religious community. Malas may appear in early Brahmanic/Hindu art as part of the garb of deities or worshippers, but are difficult to distinguish from decorative necklaces or garlands. The earliest clear depiction of a mala being used as a tool for recitation, rather than possibly being a necklace or decoration, comes from a bodhisattva image created during the 4th-6th Century Northern Wei dynasty in China- the mala is being held in the hand, rather than worn.The first literary reference to the use of a mala for the recitation of mantras comes from the Mu Huanzi Jing (木槵子經 or 佛說木槵子經, "Aristaka/Soap-Berry Seed Scripture/Classic", Taishō Tripiṭaka vol.