India is less than half the size of the United States, but it holds over four times as many people. The world’s largest democracy contains a greater diversity of religions and language families than any comparable swath of land, anywhere else. It is not all one thing. Geographic barriers, linguistic barriers, migrations, invasions, syncretism, and mimesis have all combined to create several palimpsest cultures.

So this book—a one-volume overview of the British Museum’s India collection prepared by T. Richard Blurton, the former head of its South and Southeast Asia section—is a project bold in concept, even quixotic. Imagine if a book were entitled Everywhere: A History in Objects. Just because a book is a failure, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting.

The book concerns only “material...


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