Édouard Ariel (1818-1854), a colonial administrator in Pondicherry, in the French Settlements in India, built up in a few years a reasoned collection of Tamil manuscripts, which, by its variety and the age of its manuscripts, is unique in the world.
Édouard-Simon Ariel was born in Nantes on the 5th of October 1818. He embarked on a career in the Navy. Posted to Pondicherry, he disembarked there on the 19th of November 1844. He held various positions in the colonial administration of the French Establishments in India, notably that of secretary archivist to the governor. He died prematurely, of illness, in Pondicherry in 1854.
Before his departure for Pondicherry, he stayed in Paris and was a pupil of the Indianist Eugène Burnouf (1801-1852), with whom he maintained a scholarly correspondence. It was thus quite natural that once in Pondicherry, in addition to his official occupations; Ariel showed a keen interest in history, archaeology, religions and the languages and literature of India, in particular those of the Tamil country. He accumulated working notes and study projects. In particular, he built up a unique collection of Tamil manuscripts. He had time to publish some works in the Journal Asiatique: pioneering studies on the Tirukkuṟaḷ of Tiruvaḷḷuvar, a classic text of Tamil literature, accompanied by extracts translated into French (Ariel 1847, 1848, 1852).
In addition to printed books and various objects, during his Pondicherry years (1845-1854) Ariel built up a unique collection of manuscripts, mainly in Tamil. In his will, he bequeathed his library to the Asiatic Society of Paris (Rosny 1868, p. 177). In 1866, the latter donated Ariel's manuscripts and personal papers to the future BnF. The BnF's register of donations succinctly notes (R 1192):
"1° Three hundred and twenty-four Tamil manuscripts on oles; 2° A Tibetan manuscript containing various parts of the Kandjour; 3° A Sanskrit manuscript in Nepalese characters; 4° Various papers, extracts, studies, etc. of Mr. Ariel."
Neither the BnF register nor Rosny (1868) give sufficiently precise descriptions of the collection to allow for the exhaustive identification of the Ariel manuscripts in the BnF collections. Most of them are, however, identified in the catalogues of Vinson (1867) and Cabaton (1912). See for example BnF Indien 1, manuscript of the Attuvaitāṉupavam, 'the experience of non-duality' a philosophical text, of which there does not yet seem to be a printed edition.
Ariel's manuscripts are mostly on palm leaf, the traditional book medium in India. They offer a complete panorama of literature and scholarly works in Tamil. This collection (most of which is listed as "Indien") is exceptional for several reasons. As a connoisseur of Tamil literature, Ariel obviously wanted to build up a representative collection and endeavoured to obtain copies of all important works. He was also able to acquire old manuscripts, about 70 dating from the 18th century, which are today among the oldest Tamil manuscripts preserved, because they benefited from better conservation conditions than in India when they arrived in France.
Some of these manuscripts are composites, bringing together in one volume, on a thematic basis, manuscripts of different origin. See, for example, BnF Indien 30, a manuscript that contains three (not four, as announced on its title page) works of Shiva obedience: hymns praising Śiva and his son Murukaṉ. See BnF Indien 30a, BnF Indien 30b, BnF Indien 30c.
It is possible that Ariel, as part of a reasoned acquisition plan, is at the origin of these composite manuscripts, unless he acquired them as is. Most manuscripts, whether composite or not, usually have a title page, added to the original manuscript, as indicated by the different palm type and hand. See for example BnF Indien 1 or BnF Indien 3. It is possible that Ariel hired an Indian copyist to write, i.e. incise, these title pages.
The Ariel papers, which constitute a considerable body of miscellaneous notes, unfortunately have little to tell us about Ariel's collecting activities. So far, only a few lists of works have been found on folios 239, 240 and 241 of the BnF Indien 164 manuscript. The list on folio 239 appears to be a quotation for copies desired by Ariel. His Indian intermediary (a certain B. Gnanappragassen = Tamil Ñāṉappirakācaṉ), tells him that copyists charge one rupee for 1000 grandams (Sanskrit grantha, i.e. one line of copied text) and that he believes he can reduce this price.
Other, less numerous, manuscripts of Ariel are in paper. See for example BnF Indien 191, a French translation, circa 1750, of Costanzo Beschi's grammar of vulgar Tamil.
As for Ariel's notes and personal papers, they can be found, depending on their content, under the "Indien" and "NAF" headings of the BnF. See for example BnF Indien 163, which contains Ariel's "philological works", mainly on the Tamil language.
This record is the result of the joint work of the two authors in the framework of the TST project funded by the ANR.
Published in january 2022