HONG Kong gained its place in the atlas of religion yesterday when a crowd of thousands watched as monks from 13 countries invited Buddha to bless his giant statue at Po Lin Monastery on Lantau. At the height of the two-hour ceremony, a procession of 100 monks faced the 24-metre-high effigy. As a bell rang out, 13 of the most eminent local and overseas monks placed one of the holiest relics in Buddhism - said to be a piece of Buddha's body left from His cremation 2,500 years ago - on an altar. The chanting and prayers were led by the president of the Hong Kong Buddhist Association, the Venerable Kok Kwong. Among the 10,000 who made their way to the mountaintop were Governor Chris Patten, director of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua (the New China News Agency) Zhou Nan, president of the Buddhist Association of China Zhao Pu-chu, and Canto-pop star Alan Tam Wing-lun. After the service, believers of all ages climbed the 260 steps to the Buddha, named Tian Tan after the Beijing temple on which its base is modelled. The statue, said to be the largest outdoor bronze statue of Buddha in the world, cost $68 million. Po Lin monks dreamed up the project in 1973. Made from 202 bronze pieces, the 250-tonne statue took three years to assemble, and was completed in 1989. It faces north towards China. The statue was paid for by donors in Hong Kong and China, the most generous of whom have their names inscribed on bronze lotus leaves at the Buddha's feet. ''I'm not a Buddhist, but I wanted to support the statue,'' said Tam, who donated nearly $2 million to have his name inscribed. Many had waited all night for the chance to get a good view of the inauguration ceremony. In their speeches, Mr Patten said Hong Kong had a new landmark, while Mr Zhou said the statue, designed in Hong Kong and built on the mainland, was the fruit of their close co-operation and ''a symbol of the unity of the Chinese nation''.