"The Jewel in the Crown" will surely prove to be just that for public television this year. A 14-part, 15-hour filmed serialization of the novels that make up "The Raj Quartet" by Paul Scott, "Jewel" is the handsomest, best acted and most enthralling dramatic television since "Brideshead Revisited," and it's in that exclusive league. It's one of the greatest, damnedest things I have ever seen on a screen of any size.

Ravishing, reverberant and profoundly sad, the "Masterpiece Theatre" import, produced by England's Granada Television in association with WGBH in Boston, begins its run Sunday night at 9 on Channels 26 and 22 (Part 1 is two hours, all the rest an hour each). Beginning with a rape and ending with a massacre, "Jewel" is set in the five last years of Britain's reign over India, from 1942 through 1947. One lives this history through the public and private lives of an immense collection of fascinating characters -- Britons and Indians, men and women (and one or two in between), helpless pawns, earnest bumblers, arrogant twits and blind, blind fools.

When shown in England earlier this year, "Jewel in the Crown" became a popular (and magnificent) obsession. Its appeal was broad if not universal. Shopkeepers and secretaries arranged their Tuesday nights around it, but the weekly broadcasts brought nearly all activity at Oxford to a halt as well. It comes to U.S. homes at a moment when India is once again, and tragically, in the news, suffering what could be seen as the effects of literal contamination from the West.

For British audiences, "Jewel" may have served somewhat the function that "Roots" did in America: an indigenous entertainment that was also a rite of national expiation. It, too, is an epic on the themes of racism and domain. But as filmmaking it far surpasses anything attempted for American TV; as an evocation of India it makes jokes of "The Far Pavilions" and "Gandhi"; and its multitude of plots and subplots add up to not just a cracking good yarn, but a roaring good yarn, one of seismic political resonance.

The hero and heroine are India itself, displayed here in shades and nuances provocative and seductive. Adapter Ken Taylor has managed the difficult feat of conveying a panorama at maximum vastness while bringing to the fore characters who are rich, real and sometimes indelible. Many of them work as symbols and as people; the most contemptible of them, in fact, says to another in Part 2, "You and I have been just symbols to one another. Now our relationship must become real." Taylor, and codirectors Christopher Morahan and Jim O'Brien, are blunt about symbolism and very direct with imagery, but that doesn't diminish the pungency of that imagery. "The Jewel in the Crown" is the phrase Disraeli used to describe India to Queen Victoria, we are told. It is also the title of a naive painting of Victoria ascending unto the land she never really visited; the painting is passed from character to character and keeps popping up in chapter after chapter, as does a christening gown of lace embroidery that depicts "butterflies caught in a web," the significance of which would be hard to miss.

Vultures gather, storm clouds form, but the baldness of this imagery isn't awkward or disruptive. The portrait of a doomed society, the visiting and vainglorious British, is devastating, but the film isn't merely a protracted self-laceration. The reign over India, the preposterousnesses behind the very concept of colonialism, the ugliness of racism and prejudice are seen as evidences of human folly, a cancer and not a conspiracy. That is why the series may have just as great an impact on those who see it over here as it did on those who were glued to it over there. Its human relevance is universal.

Instantly as the serial begins a viewer is immersed in atmosphere and introduced to characters who inspire passionate concern. Susan Wooldridge, achingly naive and imposingly stalwart as Daphne Manners, is visiting Mayapore and her adopted aunt, Lady Lili Chatterjee (the regal Zohra Segal) when she meets, and falls in love with, the enigmatic Hari Kummar (Art Malik), a man born in India but educated in England, and thus one who straddles, uneasily, two cultures. "I think he's terribly sad, because he seems so lost," it is said of Kummar at a party; he is much later referred to as "the permanent loose end." Kummar will be a hazily recurring, ghostly figure throughout the story. It could have been called "The Trouble with Hari."

Another major character, Ronald Merrick, is introduced early and will figure throughout, in one ghastly way or another. Played with impeccably sinister intensity by Tim Pigott-Smith (even in this company, a monster of a performance), Merrick personifies all that's worst about the British raj. He is a bigot, a liar, a pederast and a sadomasochist, and yet the only thing deemed objectionable about him by the father of the woman he wants to marry (in Part 11, that is) is that "he's not quite our class."

Characters one comes to cherish drift away -- die, or just disappear -- but there are always new ones to supplant them. Also among the most memorable is Peggy Ashcroft as Barbie Batchelor, in Chapters 3 through 11. Shocked by the self-immolation of a fellow missionary, elderly Barbie becomes the companion to Mabel Layton (Fabia Drake) at Rose Cottage, an estate in Pankot, but Mabel dies (Drake says "Goodbye, Barbie," one afternoon in a way that signals this touchingly) and Barbie is left to the mercies of Mabel's heartless and coldblooded stepdaughter-in-law, Mildred Layton (Judy Parfitt, every bit as bone-chilling as Sian Phillips' Livia in "I, Claudius").

Barbie endures the most grievous insults and humiliations. Mildred even spreads the word that she suspects her of excessive interest in the Laytons' two attractive daughters, frail Susan (Wendy Morgan, unnervingly ready to shatter at any moment) and intelligent, contemplative Sarah (intelligent, contemplative Geraldine James), who is cured of her virginity by a British soldier in Part 7 ("You're quite a girl, Sarah Layton." "No, I'm not 'quite a girl'; I'm this one"). Barbie's wedding gift to Susan of a set of treasured Apostle spoons is rudely returned by Mildred after Susan's husband is blown to bits at the front. Barbie attempts to give them instead to the officers' mess, but when she arrives at Capt. Coley's house, she discovers the captain in bed with Mildred. And Mildred's husband a prisoner of war in Germany, yet.

How is it that such events are made to seem so momentous, so affecting and so much a part of this time and place? Much earlier, Barbie nervously attends a wedding reception where, in her prim lavender suit, so long in a trunk, she is stranded in the crowd, panicked. She's a little girl lost in a forest. It is said of her by another character that her behavior reflects "a typical lower-middle-class idea of upper-class respectability." Ashcroft makes Barbie unforgettable.

There are many, many others: Marne Maitland as the secretive Pandit Baba, Warren Clarke as the flamboyant homosexual nurse "Sophie" Dixon, Rachel Kempson as Lady Manners (Daphne's real aunt, who becomes a sort of floating specter in the drama), Charles Dance as the earnest Guy Perron, and Derrick Branche as the strikingly handsome Ahmed Kasim, whose father says, "There is always the truth" and hears his son reply, "No, father, there is only what can be believed."

These people are not at the front lines of history. The war with Japan is raging and Gandhi has been jailed for his "Quit India" campaign; the characters only hear and learn of these things, but the pettiest details of their often petty daily lives reflect the way the world is changing. Much of the story is told in long conversations between characters; some viewers may find this taxing. In Part 6, Susan and Sarah sit on the bed and have a sisterly chat for seven uninterrupted minutes. Sometimes one thinks a scene has no purpose whatsoever (and in truth, there are one or two predominantly dull episodes), but everything is made to pay off, and the portents that seem around every corner lead to an agonizingly and fittingly traumatic conclusion.

The serial is "adult" in adult ways. Some of the language is more explicit than is customary, but only when there's some point in it being so. There is a smattering of nudity in a couple of episodes.

To keep track of the outside world, sequences from wartime newsreels are spliced into the story at irregular intervals, sometimes helpfully and sometimes just annoyingly. Their jingoist, tally-ho tone is meant to be a contrast to the realities depicted. A report on the Burma campaign trills, "There are colored troops out East willing to lend a hand and a shoulder!" In truth, the British are tormented by the mere existence of the INA, an army of Indians who fought with the Japanese as a way of hastening the British exodus from their country.

"In India, nothing is self-evident," one character says. The inscrutability of India to outsiders is not romanticized, just contemplated, celebrated, just as its intoxicating physical beauty is. In the last chapter, Susan Layton, whose sister has gone mad and attempted to murder her own child in a ring of fire, whose brother-in-law has been mutilated for the crime he perpetrated against Kummar and others five years earlier, whose beloved aunts have died off and whose Indian lover has been hacked to pieces by a mob that attacked a train in which she was a passenger, takes stock. "After 300 years of India, we've made this whole, damn, bloody, senseless mess," she weeps.

But even amid the violence that precedes the day of independence, there is evidence of another side to this bizarre historical relationship. An impoverished Indian boy agrees to help Perron locate the residence of the long imprisoned Kummar, and, refusing a tip, tells Perron, "Not to worry," and offers a snappy military salute. It is just one pungent gesture in 15 incredible hours, but how it sticks in the mind.

The PBS telecast of "The Jewel in the Crown" was made possible, not surprisingly, by a grant from Mobil Corp. Not since the Borgias, perhaps, has there been such a generous and productive sustained cultural patronage as Mobil's on public and commercial television. It's quite a record and quite an achievement. Now comes the jewel in the crown.