Anniversary: The Prayer Wheel


This is an Indian prayer wheel that belonged to my grandmother.

I remember seeing this wheel as a boy every week when Dad would take us up to San Mateo to visit Gram. It sat on an oval marble-topped coffee table that now sits in my mother’s house. With it were a fish made of silver, a silver ball (a censer?), and a silver tray about which my mother tells a funny story.

Now that we’re all a little older, the trinkets of our youth take on meaning and new context. I recognize the silver ornament today as a religious artifact, a tool that, like rosary beads, has a specific use in a sacred ritual. I put the pictures here so my brother Miles could have a look at the inscription and see if he could read it.

Miles has delved into all kinds of rich philosophical and religious texts, and he’s able to wade through Sanskrit, Devanagari and so on. One day when I have the time I hope to learn more about these too.

So here are the pictures. If you look closely, you can see every character all the way around the wheel. The same phrase is repeated twice on each level, for a total of four repeats. The text begins with the double-diamond figure 8 (infinity?) where the chain attaches. The next figure 8 on the other side marks where the phrase ends and begins again.

Miles offers an explanation:

First off, here it is in sanskrit. So you can see why I was confused:

The words are separated (here) just the way they are in english. The confusing thing is that in sanskrit (and I assume tibetan), the (short) 'a' is assumed, if there is no vowel. So in "mani" and "padme" there are explicit 'a' characters. You can see how the 'm' is stuck on the bottom of the 'd' in "padme." There are a number of ways to put a given set of two consonants together, which is one of the challenges of reading devanagri type.

People are generally familiar with the popular appearance of the "aum"

so I thought I would spell it out.

Here is how I think it is represented on the prayer wheel. This comes from comparing with a T-shirt I have which has 'aum mani padme hum' in tibetan.

You can see the similarities... the M has this extra loop on it, the "n" looks more like a sanskrit 't', the P looks more like a sanskrit "y." Also, the "hum" looks like it has a few extra syllables at the end, but that's kind of how my T-shirt looks.

I remember someone always saying that the wheel had a prayer written inside it, (I didn't open it up to look) but maybe it's just written on the outside. Looks like you get 4 mantras for each spin -- a pretty good deal, I should think.

The idea of the prayer wheel is that you spin it around and around and (if you spin it in the right direction), every time the prayer is repeated your karma improves.

Miles has put some further explanations online here, and there’s an online prayer wheel you can find here.

Highway 127 . . . Desert . . . Town . . . Football
Balboa Island . . . Ferries and Pavilion . . . Beaches . . . Kim
New Year's . . . Bluesmobile . . . Whaling . . . The Prayer Wheel
Tall Ships . . . Santa Barbara Island Hop . . . Minding the Train

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