There exists a renewed interest in various forms of the Rosary which in fact have little to do with the classical rosary prayer itself. The term used commonly to designate these prayer forms is chaplet, probably because of their use of the beads. Some of these chaplets have a strong Marian connotation, others are more directly related to some saints. Not all of these variants of the authentic rosary are based on solid theology and devotional practice.
The number of beads on a chaplet, or Rosary, depends on the number of prayers making up each particular form of devotion. A full Rosary consists of one hundred and fifty Hail Marys , fifteen Our Fathers , and three or four beads corresponding to introductory versicles and the Glory Be to the Father, etc. Such a "pair of beads" is generally worn by religious. Lay people commonly have beads representing a third part of the Rosary.
The Brigittine beads number seven paters in honour of the sorrows and joys of the Blessed Virgin, and sixty-three aves to commemorate the years of her life. Another Crown of Our Lady, in use among the Franciscans, has seventy-two aves, based on another tradition of the Blessed Virgin's age. The devotion of the Crown of Our Lord consists of thirty-three paters in honour of the years of Our Lord on earth and five aves in honour of His sacred wounds.
In the church Latin of the Middle Ages, many names were applied to prayer beads as: devotiones, signacula, oracula, precaria, patriloquium, serta, preculae, numeralia, computum, calculi, and others. An Old English form, bedes, or bedys, meant primarily prayers. From the end of the fifteenth century and in the beginning of the sixteenth, the name paternoster beads fell into disuse and was replaced by the name ave beads and Rosary, chaplet, or crown.
The use of beads among pagans is undoubtedly of greater antiquity than their Christian use; but there is no evidence to show that the latter is derived from the former, any more than there is to establish a relation between Christian devotions and pagan forms of prayer.
One sect in India used a chaplet consisting generally of one hundred and eight beads made of the wood of the sacred Tulsi shrub, to tell the names of Vishnu; and another accomplished its invocations of Siva by means of a string of thirty-two or sixty-four berries of the Rudrâksha tree. These or other species of seeds or berries were chosen as the material for these chaplets on account of some traditional association with the deities, as recorded in sacred legends. Some of the ascetics had their beads made of the teeth of dead bodies. Among some sects, especially the votaries of Vishnu, a string of beads is placed on the neck of children when, at the age of six or seven, they are about to be initiated and to be instructed in the use of the sacred formularies. Most Hindus continue to wear the beads both for ornament and for use at prayers.
Among the Buddhists, whose religion is of Brahminic origin, various prayer-formulas are said or repeated with the aid of beads made of wood, berries, coral, amber, or precious metals and stones. A string of beads cut from the bones of some holy lama is especially valued. The number of beads is usually one hundred and eight; but strings of thirty or forty are in use among the poorer classes. Buddhism in Burma, Tibet, China, and Japan alike employs a number of more or less complicated forms of devotion, but the frequently recurring conclusion, a form of salutation, is mostly the same, and contains the mystic word OM, supposed to have reference to the Buddhistic trinity. It is not uncommon to find keys and trinkets attached to a Buddhist's prayer beads, and generally each string is provided with two little cords of special counters, ten in number, in the form of beads or metal disks. At the end of one of these cords is found a miniature thunderbolt; the other terminates in a tiny bell. With the aid of this device the devotee can count a hundred repetitions of his beads or 108 x 10 x 10 formulas in all.
Among the Japanese, especially elaborate systems of counting exist. One apparatus is described as capable of registering 36,736 prayers or repetitions.
The Moslems use a string of ninety-nine (or one hundred) beads called the subha or tasbih, on which they recite the "beautiful" names or attributes of Allah. It is divided into three equal parts either by a bead or special shape or size, or by a tassel of gold or silk thread. The use of these Islamic beads appears to have been established as early as the ninth century independently of Buddhistic influences. Some critics have thought the Mohammedan chaplet is kindred to a Jewish form of one hundred blessings. The beads in general use are said to be often made of the sacred clay of Mecca or Medina.
Among travellers; records of prayer beads is the famous instance, by Marco Polo, of the King of Malabar, who wore a fine silk thread strung with one hundred and four large pearls and rubies, on which he was wont to pray to his idols. Alexander Von Humboldt is also quoted as finding prayer beads, called Quipos, among the native Peruvians.