AS anyone who visits India for the first time will know, the country’s sights, smells and sounds can both delight and overwhelm. Arriving in 1875 for a four-month tour of the subcontinent that would see him travel more than 7500 miles and take in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal as well as the “jewel in the crown” of India, the then Prince of Wales would have experienced a similar assault on the senses.

By the end of his journey, remarked Victorian journalist William Howard Russell, who accompanied him on the trip, the man who later became Edward VII knew “more Chiefs than all the Viceroys and Governors together and [had] seen more of the country ... than any living man”.

And, as a new exhibition opening next week at the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh highlights, he had also been given the most extraordinary array of gifts, showcasing Indian craftsmanship and design at its most exquisite.

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Among them are a gold enamelled, diamond-set ink stand in the form of a barge, a beautifully ornamented dagger set with pearls and an elaborate “sirpech”, or turban ornament, set with large emeralds, bordered by diamonds.

The visit was an unprecedented, carefully stage-managed piece of political and monarchical theatre aimed at promoting closer ties between the two countries and healing rifts created by the violent – and unsuccessful – Indian rebellion of 1857. Followed closely by the newspapers at home and abroad, the visit was viewed as a roaring success and helped secure Britain’s place as India’s imperial overlord: months after the prince’s return his mother, Queen Victoria, was declared Empress of India.

Splendours of the Subcontinent: a Prince’s Tour of India, which runs until April, tells the story of the trip through the magnificent works of art presented to the prince as part of the traditional exchange of gifts, and were exhibited on his return at museums across the UK, including in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

The exhibition also provides the perfect opportunity to consider how the relationship between Britain and India has changed since then, and how influential the subcontinent has been in the formation of modern Britain, particularly 70 years on from Indian independence and partition.

Royal Collection curator Kajal Meghani hopes the collection will appeal to visitors on a number of fronts.

“We worked with community leaders from Bradford and Leicester, as well as advisors from the British Museum, on how best to approach this incredibly rich material because there are so many threads and stories to be brought together into one narrative,” she explains.

“The tour itself was fascinating. When you look at the tour diary the scope of the trip is mind-boggling, and included transport by train, boat and elephant. Having visited India myself several times, you are always overwhelmed by the experiences and the prince would have been no different.”

A key rationale for the tour was to develop diplomatic relations with the many rulers of the vast subcontinent and the prince met with more than 90 maharajas over the four months. He was keen to create a good impression and would ensure he fitted in with traditional Indian court culture, offering rose water to freshen up and betel nut as a mouth freshener at the end of meetings.

The third strand of the exhibition is the craftsmanship of the gifts. “The prince recognises the importance of collection and when he returns he immediately arranges for them to be exhibited,” says Meghani. “After their first week on show in London, more than 30,000 visitors have seen them, which gives us some idea of how popular Indian craftsmanship was.”

Scots played a key role in the British Raj across governance, trade, education and missionary work, and by the mid 19th century the connection was at its height, with many middle-class and skilled working-class people still heading east to make their fortune.

The jute industry provided strong links with Dundee, while much of the track and locomotives that comprised India’s vast rail network were made in Glasgow.

According to historian Professor Sir Tom Devine, who has written extensively on Scotland’s contribution to Empire, Scots would have been queuing up to see the treasures the prince brought back from his trip.

“There would have been tremendous interest in these gifts at the time,” he says. “Scots were disproportionately represented at all levels throughout the Empire as a whole and were particularly prominent in India, with merchants, traders, military officers, physicians and – above all – senior civil servants. This gave rise to the aphorism that England ruled the Empire but Scots actually ran it. Ceylon was often called a Scotch colony, so active were Scots in tea plantations there.

“There is no doubt that the Scottish effect on India was profound. And it is extraordinary that Scotland, a tiny country with a population of just 4.2 million, would play such a major role in the running of the greatest territorial empire the world has ever seen.

“The Empire is always complex, of course. There were some very unacceptable things done in its name, but not everything was entirely bad. Eventually it helped spread democracy across parts of the globe.

“This new exhibition gives people the opportunity to look at history via material culture rather than written records, and that can have a much bigger sensual, emotional and psychological impact.”

Meghani believes the works of art at the centre of the show offer unique insights into Indian craft and design, as well as wider cultural history.

“It’s telling that they were handed straight over to the South Kensington Museum – now the V&A – for curation and display,” she says. “On one hand, they were tokens of loyalty towards British rule, but they instantly take on a design narrative too, and were arranged by material and technique. Newspapers of the time urged visitors to be inspired by them, particularly in places where craftsmanship was seen as particularly important, such as Scotland and Yorkshire.”

Her own favourite pieces include the barge ink stand, which was presented by the Maharaja Benares.

“The more you look at it, the more you see,” says Meghani. “The detail is simply astonishing, and it is comprised of 19 different pieces. The prince travelled down the Ganges on a similar barge and the piece features a flag with the Benares royal crest, which you can only see if you look very closely, while the mast has an inscription in English.”

She also points out that just as the prince was utilising the trip for political, cultural and economic ends, so too were the maharajas.

“All rulers of India were active in sending objects to international exhibitions and many won prizes,” she says. “This is another interesting aspect of the gift-giving to the prince – the maharajas understood very well the coverage of the tour and were keen to use this to their advantage.”

As for what she hopes the 21st-century visitor may get out of the exhibition, its curator points to the immense cultural impact of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on modern Britain.

“Everyone knows a bit about Britain’s relationship with the subcontinent but if the tour can reveal a bit more about attitudes then I think it will help us explore modern attitudes, especially in the post-Brexit narrative we find ourselves in,” she explains.

“This historical connection led to Britain being a very multicultural country and we are very keen to connect with the diaspora. This exhibition is part of everyone’s history, and even if you’ve not been to India, most people will recognise the influence that Indian design and culture has had on the UK.

“We were very mindful of the recent commemorations around the 70th anniversary of Indian independence partition. As we saw during the recent coverage, independence is a bittersweet subject which means different things to different people.

“This was very much part of the discussions around this exhibition, as was colonialism itself, and objects can help open up the debate.”

Indeed, Meghani says curating the show made her reassess some of her own views. “My family originally come from Gujarat and working on this exhibition has been a real learning curve,” she adds. “Sometimes in approaching Empire we do it in a very black and white way. But there was so much human exchange and interaction and it’s difficult to be so black and white around that. For me personally, that has been fascinating.”

Splendours of the Subcontinent: a Prince's Tour of India 1875-76 opens on Friday and runs until April 22 at the Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh