Ducler, Philippe Étienne (1778-1840)

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Philippe Étienne Ducler (1778-1840), a colonial administrator in Karikal, in the French Settlements of India, built up in a few years a collection of Tamil manuscripts and gouaches, illustrating various subjects, which are today one of the most interesting Indian collections in the BnF.


Philippe Étienne Ducler was born on the 9th of July 1778 in Paris, into a family of master ribbon makers. He joined the navy in 1814 as a civilian. Initially employed at the depot of maps and plans, he left the public service on the 29th of February 1816 for three years to accompany the Duke of Luxembourg to Brazil. Upon his return to France in November 1818, he was assigned by royal order of the 31st of March 1819 to Guadeloupe with the rank of deputy commissioner of the navy. In Basse-Terre, he fulfilled the duties of Director of the Interior and of the Unenclosed Royal Dwellings.

On the 30th of October 1823, an ordinance of Louis XVIII appointed him as a second class Navy Commissioner and assigned him to Pondicherry to be a certifying officer. However, his actual departure for India was not decided until the following year, when an order of the 13th of October 1824 finally appointed him administrator of Karikal. Before leaving the metropolis, he joined the Asiatic Society of Paris where he was introduced at the meeting of the 6th of December 1824 (S.n. 1824). During his stay in India, he was named Knight of the Legion of Honour.

In 1831, Philippe Ducler left Karikal for a health leave. At the end of this leave, he was not sent back to India but posted to the port of Cherbourg on the 11th of November 1833. Promoted to the rank of first class Navy Commissioner on the 1st of January 1834, he ended his career in Dunkirk where he directed the naval service from the 1st of January 1835 until his death. He died on the 23rd of July 1840, probably as a result of a tropical disease.

Manuscripts on palm leaves

On the 22nd of July 1833, the future BnF acquired 28 objects from "Duclere", namely a "Collection of Indian manuscripts on olles in Tamil characters & gouaches bought for the price of 8000 fr" (R 68-95). The 27 manuscripts on ôle (palm leaf) in the lot (R 68-94) are briefly described, probably by Burnouf (1832, B 1-38), who in turn counts 39 manuscripts (as he assigned a separate number to each of the separate volumes of the same work). In total, therefore, there are 35 manuscripts on palm leaves, containing 43 different works: 12 single-text manuscripts; 6 omnibus books; 5 works in several volumes, i.e. 17 manuscripts.

Burnouf (1832, pp. 84-85) gives details of how Ducler built up his collection: Ducler hired a Hindu scholar, who had been in his service and was incarcerated for a "serious offence", to copy, in return for a salary, "the most esteemed works of Brahmanical literature" which "learned Brahmins" were able to communicate to him within his prison.

Works in Tamil constitute the majority of the collection. Ducler took care to order copies of elementary or classical works in Tamil. One should also note the text of two 'tragedies' (R 81-82 = B 25-26 = Indian 397 and 495) performed in Karikal in 1829 according to Burnouf (1832, p. 89). Only the Dharmaśāstra (R 92-93 = B 36-37) and the Yajurveda (R 94 = B 38) are in Sanskrit.

All of these manuscripts, except the Dharmaśāstra, have been identified in the collections of the BnF, notably thanks to Vinson (1867) and Cabaton (1912). Thanks to the combined efforts of the BnF's Oriental Manuscripts Department and funded projects (NETamil and TST), most of them are now digitised (or in the process of being digitised) and can be consulted on Gallica in high definition. Below is a list of these manuscripts with their call numbers and links, where applicable, to their digital images (on Gallica) and descriptions made in the framework of the TST project.

Ducler's manuscripts offer several particularities:

  • Their aisles, made of precious wood, are finely crafted.
  • The palm leaves come from Ceylon (Burnouf 1832, p. 85).
  • The foliation is double (Tamil and Arabic numerals).
  • Some pages are in Latin characters (transcription of original titles, short French summary of contents).
  • The date of copying in the Christian era (1828 and 1830 for the majority) is generally given at the end of the manuscript.
  • each manuscript is accompanied by a note in French on plain paper (Burnouf 1832, p. 85).


Illustration albums

In addition to the manuscripts on palm leaves, Ducler also sold to the BnF an exceptional set of gouaches on paper (R 95; Burnouf 1832, p. 86), that is, according to the BnF register, 394 gouaches divided into 5 series. The set was bound in 3 volumes under Napoleon III (as attested by the monogram on the spine), bearing the numbers Indien 743, 744, 746.

The total number of gouaches is in fact 404, the BnF registered erroneously counting 194 gouaches instead of 204 for the castes and professions. Each illustration has a bilingual caption (Tamil and French) followed by the date 1831 (bottom left, in the caption cartouche).

This unique set is of great iconographic and ethnographic interest with its depictions of deities, castes and professions, Indian agents of the colonial administration in Karikal, scenes of daily life and festivals.

The series of deities consists of 108 gouaches, divided equally between Vishnuite and Shivaite themes. Two separate painters executed these works, each with a cultic orientation. The most important groups in the series are those of the avatāra of Vishnu, the principal forms of Shiva and the aṣṭadikpāla, the eight guardians of the directions of space.

The paintings of deities include mostly Pan-Indian gods, but the interest of these works also lies in the place they give to local deities. The Indian collection 744 includes representations of indigenous village gods and cult statues housed in Tamil temples.


This note is the result of the joint work of the two authors within the framework of the TST project funded by the ANR.

Published in january 2022

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