NEW DELHI -- In the United States, "War and Remembrance" lasted 39 1/2 hours and was considered one of the longest miniseries ever. But how about one lasting more than 18 months?

There is such a maxiseries. It's called "The Mahabharata," and it's still running on Indian television. It won't end until July 8.

Based on a mythological Hindu epic that is the longest poem in world literature, "The Mahabharata" is the country's hottest show, even though it airs at an hour that would amaze U.S. networks.

Each one-hour episode of the Indian drama starts at 9 a.m. on Sundays.

Despite that early hour, Doordarshan, the government department that controls India's only nationwide TV channel, estimates the show attracts an average audience of 90 million people each week -- or more than one-tenth of India's population of 833 million.

The serial is in Hindi, but Doordarshan officials say its appeal reaches far beyond the northern, Hindi-speaking regions of the country.

In the southern state of Kerala, for example, newspapers publish a transcript of each week's show in Malayalam, the local language.

"People here are highly involved in 'The Mahabharata,' " says I.G. Venugopal, a resident of Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. "They read the newspaper to get to know the outline and then watch the serial."

"The Mahabharata" also appears to have transcended religious barriers in India, where 82 percent of the people are Hindu but there are large communities of Moslems, Sikhs and Christians.

In one New Delhi house, two Moslem carpenters installing new windows threatened to take Sunday off unless they were given access to the television set.

"I watch the serial every week. If I miss an episode now, I won't understand anything," said one of them, Naseem Ahmed.

His remarks would be familiar to American viewers of ABC's surreal, convoluted "Twin Peaks."

"The Mahabharata" has a somewhat wider scope. It's a kaleidoscope of court intrigue and fierce battles between two sets of feuding brothers, tempered with religion, philosophy and the virtues and vices of princes and aspiring kings.

Many Hindus learn the story in their childhood, when it is retold as the victory of good over evil with the five good Pandava brothers defeating the 100 bad Kaurava brothers.

But now, as the show begins to peak (the 99th Kaurava brother recently was killed in battle), several twists and nuances are beginning to come through. The Pandavas aren't pure: They have used every trick in the book to win.

And some on the Kaurava side aren't totally bad. Their army chief, the illegitimate son of the mother of the Pandavas, is chivalrous in battle. And the guru of the Pandavas, another good guy, was on the Kaurava side until he died.

"Most of this we didn't know," says Shailendra Chopra, an employee of Indian Airlines and another avid viewer. "It's like a crime thriller. What will happen next?"

"It will take a long time for us to get another serial like this," said Abdul Sattar Tatari, the Doordarshan official in charge of television programs.