IT IS the first object to catch the eye as one mounts the staircase of the Queen’s Gallery. A miniature golden barge, enamelled in green and blue on gold, studded with sapphires, rubies and diamonds, its prow shaped like a peacock, its tailfeathers radiating out in miniature enamelled glory. The exterior belies its function as an inkstand, containing two inkwells, gold pen nibs, a pen-knife and a pair of the most exquisitely crafted scissors. If this object, a gift from one royal to another, is staggering in its lavish detail, the sheer expense in terms of craftsman hours and cost, it is perhaps even more astounding to think that this model is based on a life size barge.

The inkstand was given to the future Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, by the Maharajah of Benares in 1876 while the Prince was on his momentous diplomatic tour of what was then known as India, now the four nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It is just one lavish object in this Queen’s Gallery exhibition of fascinating items given to the Prince over the winter of 1875-6.

The tour was a diplomatic one, coming just 20 years after the British crown had taken control of the Indian subcontinent from the East India Company after the Indian Rebellion against its domineering control over large swathes of India. But it was also part of the education of the Prince, planned by Queen Victoria and Albert to encourage him to take an interest in the wider world over which he would one day preside. The Prince commissioned medals and rings, badges and lockets, watches, miniatures and books to give as gifts, which he did with deference to the customs of the areas he visited. In return he received jewellery, swords, caskets, perfume bottles, all stunningly decorated, each individual in their display of fine craft work from the many diverse traditions of the subcontinent.

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As I wander around the exhibition with curator Kajal Meghani, who has twice before mounted this exhibition in Bradford and Leicester, she tells me that the gifts are separated, loosely, into type – curiosities, arms and armaments, examples of local craftsmanship. It is fascinating, the different coloured enamelling of the different regions singing out from ornamental shields, perfume cases, a magnificent pair of fly whisks made from peacock feathers, gold thread, pearls and enamel.

But such distinction is not only curatorial design – it reflects a memo sent by the Prince of Wales to the governors in India before he left that the traditional durbar – courtly exchange of gifts – should not take place, and that only objects of local craftsmanship or historical interest should be offered, rather than causing great new expense to the Indian rulers.

And indeed the thoughts provoked by this exhibition are wide-ranging, from the nature of Empire to the nature of collecting; from the nature of Indian design to its influence on the European art world, and then of that new market on the Indian artists; from conflicting ideas on what rep-resented indigenous craft and its "preservation" to moments of well-meaning amidst a colonial history that included the death from famine of millions of Indians under British governance.

There is a stylized horse-head hilt dagger given by the Nizam of Hyderabad, four golden lion perfume holders from Kapurthala, whose tongues waggle when perfume is poured. In a corner, not yet in its display case, a gold and jewelled crown – too elaborate, it turned out, for contemporary Victorian taste, suspicious of anything that might turn out to be tourist ware and not "traditional" Indian craftsmanship. There is a gold chased Perfume Holder from the Maharaja of Jodhpur which opens out, Faberge-egg style, to reveal five small perfume holders on silver filigree brackets. Even the administrative elements of the tour – the written addresses made by regions welcoming the Prince – were lavishly produced on silk with gold embroidery or intricate miniature painting.

Then there are the viscerally shocking punch daggers, a nasty name that tells you everything you need to know about these foot long pieces of solid metal weaponry, a blade which, when a trig-ger is pulled, splits to become three blades. There are swords with enamelled tiger head handles and Persian watered crucible steel blades; there is a sixteenth century pierced spear head from South India which the Prince’s private secretary, a journalist with The Times, dismissed as a “tri-fling…memento” and yet which turned out to be of great historic significance.

Of significance too is the fact that much of this collection shows the Maharajahs, despite orders to the contrary, putting great effort into producing gifts that displayed their local artistry, keenly aware that the future of the dying crafts in their regions and their diminishing wealth might find some hope in rich "tourists" from Victorian Britain, keen to purchase something of the wonders they were to see in the Prince’s staggering collection.

Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-76, The Queen’s Gallery, The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Canongate, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, royalcollection.org. Until April 22, 2018. Daily 9.30am-4.30pm (3.30pm on Dec 24). Closed Dec 25-26. £7 (adult), £3.50 (child)