LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain's first gallery dedicated to Buddhist sculpture opens this week at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, and next month the capital hosts a film festival devoted to the religion.
The gallery, funded by and named after the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation which promotes Chinese culture and arts as well as Buddhism internationally, features sculptures from as early as the second century and as recently as 1850.
"Buddhism is one of the fastest growing religions in the world and there is tremendous interest (in Britain)," said gallery curator John Clarke at a press preview.
"We have had many people coming to look at things in storage, and now here they have the opportunity to see things in a unified and coherent space," he told Reuters.
The works all come from the V & A's collection of Buddhist sculptures, regarded as one of the finest in Europe. Many have been kept in storage for decades due to a lack of space.
A spectacular 19th century Mandalay shrine is on display at the museum for the first time in 30 years, and depicts a royally clothed and crowned Shakyamuni Buddha on a throne that recalls the Burmese royal thrones of the period.
The three-meter tall teak and gilded lacquer work decorated with semi-precious stones is a rare surviving reminder of former Burmese royal patronage, and underlines how monarchies across Asia used Buddhism to legitimize and strengthen their rule.
The royal palace in Mandalay, Myanmar's second city, was destroyed during World War Two.
Among the earliest works is a small carved panel depicting the birth of the Buddha dating between 100 and 200 AD and originating in Pakistan.
Another highlight is the head of the Buddha, dated between 300 and 400 AD, which would have once graced a large-scale panel modeled in high relief.
The head is treated in a Greco-Roman style reflecting the combination of Buddhist and Hellenist influences of sculptures unearthed at Hadda, eastern Afghanistan.
The gallery features what the V & A says is one of the world's finest 14th century Nepalese Buddhist images to survive, that of a gilded copper representation of Padmapani, or Bearer of the Lotus.
The permanent gallery opens to the public on Wednesday.
Starting on May 7 there is also an International Buddhist Film Festival at the Barbican center opening with a British Film Institute archive print of the 1925 classic "Prem Sanyas" (The Light of Asia) with a live performance of the original score.
"These films give us a chance to see how this 2,500-year-old tradition is now manifesting itself all over the world," said Gaetano Kazuo Maida, executive director of the IBFF.
"In a year of deep economic crisis and gloom around the world, this festival is exactly what we need in 2009.
"It will encourage everyone to take a close look at the philosophies that drive them and their lifestyle choice -- the perfect opportunity to question exactly what makes us happy."
Editing by Paul Casciato