The World Parliament of Religions, held as one of the many international congresses at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, is often regarded as a significant factor in the birth of religious pluralism in the United States. Equally, it is treated as one of the earliest formal encounters between leading Asian missionaries and American audiences, leading to a wider acceptance of Eastern Religions. Here, I want to briefly look beyond the speeches and presentations given at the World Parliament of Religions and examine the broader presence of a Buddhist material culture at the fair which lasted from May through the end of October. Outside of the Buddhist representatives at the Parliament, an event that lasted only two weeks, what other ways were Americans interacting with expressions of Buddhism at the fair?
- Japan Building (Phoenix Pavilion): The centerpiece of Japan’s exhibits at the Columbian Exposition was the Hōōden 鳳凰殿, or Phoenix Pavilion, a large wooden building that was built in Japan, disassembled, and then reconstructed by Japanese craftsmen in Chicago [Fig. 1]. The Japanese concession building was a slightly smaller replica of the Phoenix Hall (Hōōdō 鳳凰堂) at Uji in Kyoto Prefecture. The original building in Japan, also known as the Amida Hall, was part of the eleventh century Buddhist temple complex known as Byōdōin. The exposition replica, however, was not fitted with Buddhist imagery and ritual paraphenalia, but in the words of Okakura Kakuzō, was “modified to adapt it for secular use.” The building was gifted to the city of Chicago after the fair. After decades of decline, the site was refurbished and re-opened as a tea house in 1935 until 1941. Vandals set fire to the building in 1946, reducing it to ashes. A set of three transom panels from the original building still exist in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
- Japanese Exhibit, Palace of Fine Arts: For the first time in the history of World Fairs, Japan was allowed to present works under the category of Fine Arts at the Columbian Exposition. Of the hundreds of works submitted and put on display, only about a dozen pieces directly represented Buddhist figures, Buddhist architecture, or Buddhist themes more generally. Japanese artworks occupied two areas in the Palace of Fine Arts, one on the main gallery in the west wing [Fig. 2] and the other on the second floor gallery surrounding three of the four sides of the central rotunda [Fig. 3]. Some of the most stunning sculptural pieces were Buddhist inspired and placed at the front and center of these exhibition spaces. Guarding one side of the entrance to the Japan exhibit on the main concourse was a giant bronze image of a fierce Buddhist figure who often protects the entrance of Japanese Buddhist temples, named Shukongōjin 執金剛神 (S. Vajradhāra)[Fig. 2]. This image was cast by Okazaki Sessei 岡崎雪聲 (1854-1921) and is currently owned by the Waseda University Aizu Yaichi Memorial Museum. A carefully carved miniature replica of the Yasaka Pagoda 八坂の塔 , executed by Niwa Keisuke 丹羽圭介 (1856-1941), was also placed in the alcove in front of the entrance [Fig. 2]. Lastly, a smaller image of Kannon Bodhisattva in ivory, carved by Ishikawa Kōmei 石川光明 (1852-1913), was also positioned at the entrance [Fig. 5]. One the second floor gallery overlooking the east court we find an expressive rendition of Gigeiten 技芸天 (S. Sarasvatī), a minor Buddhist deity who is considered a patron of the arts [Figs. 4 & 6]. This piece was carved in wood by Takenouchi Kyuichi 竹内久一 (1857-1916) and is currently owned by the University Art Museum at Tokyo University of the Arts.
- Japanese Exhibit, Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building: At least one “handsome pagoda” was on display in at this exhibit [Fig. 7]. I have been unable to identify the maker of this object.
- Japanese Exhibit, Horticulture Building: Japan’s horticulture and floriculture exhibit incorporated traditional stone lanterns (dōrō) into its garden displays.
- Ceylon Building (Ceylon Court): The official governmental building of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, occupied over 18,000 square feet and was comprised of a central octagonal hall with two wings spreading to the north and south [Fig. 8]. The architectural form borrowed from Sinhalese Buddhist temple design in the Dravidian style. Photographs of temples in Sri Lanka were hung throughout the court. Most notably, the main central hall was flanked on both sides by large statues, one of the sedent Buddha in meditation and one of a four-armed Viṣṇu painted in his characteristic dark blue hue. Figures such as nāgas, garudas, and yakṣas were also worked into various balustrades, pillars, and other architectural elements. A model of the Ruwanweli stūpa in Anuradhapura was constructed just outside of the main building, and was apparently “set apart for the use of the Ceylon court staff” [Handy 1893: 112]. After the fair, the main building was purchased by real estate mogul Frank R. Chandler and moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where it stood until it was demolished in 1958. While the front exterior of the building was commonly photographed, I have seen no imagery of the interior or the stūpa constructed in the back.
- Sinhalese Exhibit, Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building: The Sinhalese pavilion in the Manufacturers Building was positioned between the Korean and Indian pavilions. It was reputedly created “in the form of a small Cingalese [sic] temple” [Bancroft 1893: 1.186, also Handy 1893: 112, White & Igleheart 1893: 135]. The interior displayed frescoes representing the life of the Buddha, which were made as copies from tenth and thirteenth century originals. Additionally, figures of the Buddha were found in the ornamental screen panels placed around the exhibit [White & Igleheart 1893: 135]. I have not located any photographs or illustrations of this exhibit.
- Sinhalese Exhibit, Anthropological Building: The Ceylon Commission displayed a figure of a Buddhist monk and the Colombo Museum, now the National Museum of Colombo, provided a model of the Buddha’s tooth relic, presumably that which is preserved in Kandy, and a reliquary. Notably, a bronze statue of the Buddha was displayed by Don Carlos Appuhamy (1833-1906), a pioneer of the Buddhist revival movement in Sri Lanka and father of Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933)[Handy 1893: 1102]. All of these objects fell under Group 164, which was described as “models and representations of ancient buildings, cities, or monuments of the historic period anterior to the discovery of America” [Anon 1891: 54]. I have not located any photographs or illustrations of this exhibit.
- East India Building: Located close to the Sweden Building, the East India Building was a private venture funded by the Indian Tea Association of Calcutta. It occupied a 4,800 square foot footprint and was ornamented in an elaborate arabesque design [Handy 1893: 128]. The interior of the rectangular hall displayed goods for sale and was decorated with statues of the Buddha [Fig. 9]. Hanging signage advertised “Buddhist Idol [sic].” Additionally, “Burmese pagodas” were listed as on display in the official directory [Handy 1893: 274].
- Siamese Exhibit, Manufacters and Liberal Arts Building: Siam, now known as Thailand, did not construct a separate governmental building, but its pavilion located in the Manufacters and Liberal Arts Building was partly created in a traditional temple style with elaborate sloped roofs and inlaid glass mosaic [Mayer 1893: 10]. Images of the Buddha, framed by floral designs, were carved in ivory and hung at the entrance of the pavilion [Bancroft 1893: 2.220][Fig. 10].
- Private British Collection, Anthropological Building: A unnamed British collector of curios also displayed at least two Indian Buddhist pieces of artwork [White & Igleheart 1893: 424]. One was a Gandharan relief depicting a narrative scene in the life of the Buddha [Fig. 11]. This item was reportedly originally recovered by an officer in the British army. The other item was the remnant of the webbed hand of the Buddha [Bancroft 1893: 643, 661-662][Fig. 12]. I am unsure of the whereabouts of these two items today. The exposition’s Department of Ethnology was under the supervision of Frederick Ward Putnan, the director of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, who was also in charge of arranging the displays in the Anthropological Building. Due to various delays, the Anthropological Building was not ready for visitors until one month after the fair opened [Hinsley 1991: 349]. This might account for the difficulty in finding a detailed directory of the building’s contents or schematic map of its displays (as we find, for example, with both the Palace of Fine Art and the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building)[for diagrams of the fair’s buildings, minus the Anthropological Building, see Handy 1893]. Notably, while the outdoor ethnographic exhibits on the Midway Plaisance fell under the oversight of Putnam, in reality, Sol Bloom, an adroit San Francisco businessman, was in charge of their installation [Hinsely 1991: 349].
- Foreign Missionary Society, Women’s Building: A collection of “curios” from foreign missionary work was placed on display, of which “converted heathendom has also contributed to the collection a Turkish prayer roll, and a Buddhist rosary.” [Bancroft 1893: 2.285]. I have not located any photographs or illustrations of this exhibit.
- Chinese Exhibit, Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building: Since China declined to participate in the fair due to the recently enacted American laws against Chinese immigrants, especially the 1892 Geary Act, the Chinese presence was entirely comprised by private ventures. Merchants from Canton exhibited Chinese goods at the Manufacturers Building, which reputedly included tiny carvings of joss houses and pagodas [Bancroft 1893: 2.221]. I have not located any photographs or illustrations of this exhibit.
- Chinese Village, Theatre, and Joss House, Midway Plaisance: The Columbian Exposition was divided into two sections. The first was comprised mainly of large neoclassical buildings which housed the displays of international exhibitors. Known as the White City (or Dream City), this section was interpreted as by contemporary visitors and modern scholars as the utopian vision of a good, modern life. In contrast to the educational function of the exhibits in the White City, the carnivalesque amusement concession, known as the Midway Plaisance, was in the words of Robert Rydell, the “honky-tonk sector” of the fair. [Rydell 1978: 255]. Under the supervision of Sol Bloom, the Midway was principally a commercial endeavor, populated by displays installed by private entrepreneurs. The Wah Mee Exposition Company, operated and financed by three Chinese immigrants, opened a building complex that housed a Chinese theater, tea house (in some maps erected separately on the southern side of the Midway walkway), restaurant, shopping bazaar, shrine hall, and living diorama of daily life in a Chinese village. The shrine hall, adopting the common American nomenclature of “joss house,” was located on the second floor of the large building in the rear of the concession space. While some fairgoers describe the entirety of the hall as “Buddhist,” photographs reveal a relatively typical Chinese American shine populated with folk deities, semi-historical figures, and tutelarygods. It is very likely an image of Bodhisattva Guanyin was included on the altar, although I cannot clearly locate one in the surviving souvenir photographs. Textual accounts also note an additional display of Yama’s Ten Courts of Hell where different figures are represented in various modes of karmically determined tortures. Although the concession was created for tourists, the joss house appears to have been a fully functional shrine hall. At the closing of the fair, the contents of the joss house were auctioned off, but a few items were sold to the Field Museum, including a set of fortune sticks.
Other exhibits that could have displayed Buddhist objects: Japanese Bazaar, Midway Plaisance; Korean Exhibit, Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building; East Indian Exhibit, Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building; East Indian Exhibit, Anthropological Building; Gunning Collection, Anthropological Building; Cullin Collection, Anthropological Building.