The human body in Indian art is celebrated as both sensuous and sacred. William Dalrymple on an astonishing exhibition of little-known masterpieces exploring this 4,000-year tradition

William Dalrymple,  The Guardian, Thursday 19 December 2013 16.01 GMT

The Body in Indian Art and Thought opens, paradoxically, with death and a series of images that show the end of the body, the idea of self-sacrifice and examines how Indian civilisation expresses its different ideas of death. Successive rooms then explore ideas of birth and rebirth and cyclical time – the dialogue between time and eternity; the cosmic body and the place of astrology in determining the body's place in time and space, illustrated by some dazzling Jain maps and cosmological images that look like vorticist abstracts. Further galleries examine the nature of divine bodies; heroism and ideal bodies; asceticsm and the yogic body; and rapture – the self lost through possession or love, consumed by another.

It is difficult to choose which work lingers longest in the memory: the superb 10th-century Chola bronze of a medieval Tamil prime minster, with its wondrous clarity and purity of line? The fabulous 18th-century Pahari image of the Vision of the Sage Markandeya discovering Vishnu in the form of a small child floating on a leaf, at the time of the mah¯apralaya, the submerging of the world in the cosmic waters at the beginning of the world? The alarming tantric goddess Chinnamast¯a cutting her own head off to feed blood to her thirsty devotees – all three standing on the legs of merrily copulating crowned gods or monarchs.

Each room mixes objects from different religious traditions – Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, tantric and Sikh as easily as it brings together different geographical ends of the country and different periods of history.

The exhibition is as philosophically and conceptually rich as it is visually stunning, and if it sometimes privileges complexity over clarity, then that perhaps is an accurate reflection of its subject. The only thing I was not entirely sure about was the slightly brutalist design with its use of unpainted MDF hardboard. But you can't have everything. This remains one of the most astonishing assemblages of Indian art objects ever brought together into a single space.