HONG KONG -- Tens of thousands of people lined up Thursday to see one of Buddha's fingers -- on loan from China for 10 days -- and although they were herded past in a hurry, many said the relic offered Hong Kong fresh hopes for peace and calm.
Margaret Luk's eyes welled with tears after the 70-year-old retiree spent a few moments gazing at the bone fragment, encased in a statue enclosed in bulletproof glass.
"I think the finger will protect me through the pains of life," Luk said, adding that most people aren't blessed with the chance to see such a sacred relic.
Beijing flew the finger to Hong Kong on Wednesday -- when locals were celebrating Buddha's birthday -- for a temporary display that critics call a cynical gesture to score political points.
But China's officially atheistic communist government may also have created a brief surge in spirituality in Hong Kong, which has seen its confidence shattered through several years of sluggish economic growth.
"I'm here to feel the peaceful atmosphere, which is very different from all the noise and disputes in Hong Kong," said 48-year-old accountant Kerwin Leung.
"People of different opinions are turning Hong Kong into a chaotic society. There are too many debates over politics and people's livelihoods. I hope it will cool down," said Leung, who found comfort in the finger even though he's not a Buddhist.
Critics charge that Beijing sent the Buddha finger to calm widespread anger over China's decision to stifle Hong Kong's democratic aspirations. The top mainland legislative panel ruled last month that Hong Kong cannot directly choose its next leader in 2007 or all lawmakers in 2008 -- stirring fears that Hong Kong's promised autonomy was being violated.
Chiu Dan-yin agreed Beijing was motivated by politics, but believes the finger might improve Hong Kong's psyche anyway.
"I hope the relic can really help people become happier," she said.
The Hong Kong Buddhist Association, which helped organize the display, said the finger drew between 50,000 and 60,000 viewers on Wednesday. Thousands more lined up Thursday.
Saffron-robed monks chanted prayers as visitors quickly filed past the finger, being shown with three giant golden Buddha statues as a backdrop.
Some complained there were too many people and not enough time for a good view of the finger. It recalled scenes in Beijing when people visiting Communist leader Mao Zedong's preserved body in Tiananmen Square are rushed past with little time to look.
"It's too far away. I can't see it clearly," grumbled Paul Lee, who came with his wife and 2-year-old son.
"The arrangements should be better," agreed Jimmy Ying, 38, who waited almost an hour with his 75-year-old mother -- a devout Buddhist. "Some people in their 70s and 80s lined up for a long time. This is a national treasure, but we could barely get a look before we were asked to leave."
The finger was brought from Famen Temple near the ancient capital of Xian in central China. It was among Buddhist relics discovered in an underground shelter at the temple in 1987.
Buddha died about 483 B.C. Some historians believe his bones were saved by Indian monks after his cremation and that a few pieces were later brought to China.
Many devout Buddhists view the finger as one of their faith's most sacred relics.
Travel agent Charlie Tse saw the finger once before at Famen Temple and said it was worth the wait to view it again.
"Hong Kong has been too depressed the last few years," Tse said. "Too many people are angry and condemning the government. The finger has great unifying power and will be good for Hong Kong."