THE BLURB for this new version of a 1950s classic opens with a monumental even if somewhat ill- constructed understatement. "If the British look back on their varied history," it calmly informs us, "the long connection with India will be an achievement which cannot be ignored." Indeed not, for it is perhaps the most remarkable story of a relationship between governors and governed in recorded history, one which relates to a country of primary world importance and which shows considerable signs, admittedly only 38 years after its end, of leaving permanent traces.

If the British are still able to think at all on a world scale in the 21st century, they may well consider that their most important impact has been through their part in the creation of the United States and India. Both roles began almost simultaneously. In 1608, one year after Captain Smith in Virginia and only 12 years before the Mayflower, Hawkins planted the flag of English trade on the coast of India.

There were not many other common features. British rule of the 13 colonies was over in little more than a century and a half, and its oppressiveness sprang from a remoteness of geography, not a difference of blood. By this time it had hardly got going in India. The transition from traders to rulers was an affair of the last part of the 18th century. The populations involved were on a vastly different scale. There were never more than 2 million people governed by the British in North America. There were already over 200 million inhabitants of India, nearly a sixth of the population of the world, by the middle of the 19th century, and 300 million by the last decades of the Raj. In America the foundations of the richest, least traditional, and most adaptable nation were laid. India, even though now ranking ninth among the industrial economies of the world, has always been poor, custom-bound and mostly unchanging. When Hawkins traveled overland from the coast north of Bombay to the seat of the Mogul emperor at Agra in 1608, he did so through a landscape that was little different from that of today. The same could hardly be said of the journey from Plymouth to Boston.

YET ONE of the most changing features of unchanging India was the nature of the Raj. It, on the whole, provided good government. There were occasional examples of corruption, cruelty and tyranny, and more frequent ones of insensitivity. But government was broadly just, honest and unselfish in a way that had never been seen in India before, and has rarely been seen in the East since. It certainly sustained itself by a remarkable feat of levitation. The corps d'elite of the Indian Civil Service (competitively recruited from 1853) was never bigger than 1,300, of whom 40 percent were by 1939 Indians. There was normally one British magistrate in a district of a million inhabitants; the 1,300 were supported by about 45,000 British troops who were in turn buttressed by another quarter of a million native soldiers. There was thus approximately one British administrator for every 250,000 inhabitants and one British soldier for every 6,000. It was a light occupation by any standards. This skeletal administration can lay substantial claim to responsibility for modern India's feat of maintaining parliamentary democracy and an independent judiciary on the unpromising base of a religiously and linguistically heterogeneous population of 800 million, living mostly on or over the edge of poverty.

Nevertheless, the Raj which produced these achievements never really settled down. Until Wellesley (governor-general from 1798-1805), British power was confined to Bengal and coastal strips or garrisons. Until after the Mutiny of 1857, the East India Company (although no longer concerned with trade) and not the British government was the nominal London authority. There was no viceroy until 1858. Even Queen Victoria was not empress of India until Disraeli grandiloquently made her so in 1876.

The late 19th-century decades were the most self-confident and the most arrogant years. They reached their apogee with Curzon's viceroyalty from 1899 to 1905, and particularly with his vast Delhi Durbar of 1903. But by then the thoughts of independence were already deeply implanted in the minds of westernized Indians. They were not the princes whom Curzon paraded around Delhi, but the new class of lawyers from Bengal and the United Provinces. Perhaps such thoughts flickered menacingly across the viceroy's own brow, for he forbade the singing of "Onward Christian Soldiers" at the ceremony, not on the sensible ground that most of the soldiers were not Christian, but on the defensive one that it contained the dangerous lines: "Crowns and Thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane." However, the defensiveness was ineffective and, in the view of many of the British in India, undesirable. Eight years later, at another Durbar, Delhi with its imperial past was proclaimed as the new capital in place of the British-created city of Calcutta. Eighteen years after that Lutyens' great viceregal palace was complete, and the fourth viceroy after Curzon (Irwin, later Halifax; soon he was to occupy another Lutyens palace on Massachusetts Avenue) moved in. Another 18 years and another four viceroys after that it was all over -- the 340-year adventure was finished.

Philip Mason published his account of the adventure in two volumes 30 years ago. The first was called The Founders, the second The Guardians, the latter title chosen for its Platonic allusion. Although not blind to its darker patches, he saw the Raj as a Platonic empire. This book is an amalgamated, updated and somewhat pruned version of the two earlier ones. It is brilliantly illustrated and retains all their authority of knowledge, economy of words and narrative verve. It strikes an unusual balance between vivid, detailed description and perceptive general analysis.