"As empires go, it was a wink in the eye of history," host Alistair Cooke will say tonight in his commentary on Great Britain and India for the final chapter of "The Jewel in the Crown." As miniseries go, this 14-part "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation was a wink in the eye of television, but one that for some viewers is all but certain to prove unforgettable.

Granada Television's production of "Jewel" was more than just one of those things. It has enthralled and fascinated an audience as few television programs attempt or manage to do. It has required a new entry to the spartan annals of television classics. Nationwide, ratings for the Mobil import are equal those for "Brideshead Revisited," previous record-holder in the passionate obsession category for the Public Broadcasting Service. In Washington, ratings have been especially high -- double those of even the most popular "Masterpiece Theatre" offerings.

Tonight, Washington's pioneer public TV station, WETA, will show the final chapter of "Jewel" as part of its March fundraising effort, and two of the stars of the later chapters, Geraldine James (who plays Sarah Layton) and Charles Dance (Guy Perron) will make personal appearances. Although the program is sure to start later than the usual 9 o'clock, Channel 26 spokesmen have promised it will not be interrupted for pledge pitches once it does begin.

While the serial, based on Paul Scott's "Raj" quartet, does reach a momentous conclusion, not everything about the last chapter is conclusive. Some loyalists may be irked at the way certain loose threads are left a-dangle. Hari Kumar (played by Art Malik), so pivotal a figure in the entire story, comes up again in the conclusion but not in as dramatically decisive a way as might be imagined.

Nor, it is safe to reveal in advance, does that callous monster Mildred Layton (Judy Parfitt) get what's properly coming to her for transgressions beyond the pale. However, certain behavioral quirks of the central villain of the piece, Ronald Merrick, are dramatized in flashback, and we learn precisely the manner of his death, which is not pretty.

Merrick, played with such elegant cunning by Tim Pigott-Smith, has been far more than the hissable villain in a showboat melodrama. He has represented the soul, if it can have a soul, of racism. "The Jewel in the Crown" is not just glorified soap opera about perils and pitfalls of the dizzy rich. It is a richly imaginative dissertation on the themes of racism and subjugation -- those are big themes -- and it laments, on a sprawling scale, the varieties of human folly and malevolence that accompany the rises and falls of empires.

Gandhi may have made a stronger impression as an unseen idea in "The Jewel in the Crown" than he did as an elaborate impersonation in "Gandhi."

"Jewel" has, of course, been richly enjoyable as a good story that placed volatile characters against intoxicating locales at an electric moment of world history. And so its audience has been broad and far-flung, a bit broader and farther flung than the PBS core audience that will watch anything introduced by a man in a leather chair. Also this audience has been patient, at least insofar as sitting through the occasional boring sequence, or even rather dull chapter (which tonight's is not). "There's a tremendous spread of popular appeal for 'Jewel,' " says Frank Goodman, the veteran publicist who handles Mobil's television philanthropies. "You've got violence, you've got sex, you've got adventure. The whole gamut."

The usual signals that a PBS miniseries has become a cult rage are evident with regard to "Jewel." The reissued paperbacks of the Scott novels in a boxed set have made the bestseller lists. The touring stars have been hailed by throngs. Pigott-Smith is so successful a swine that "people were practically spitting on him" when the series was shown last year in England, Goodman says, and a WETA fundraiser expressed a touch of relief here when it was learned the actor would not accompany Dance and James to town; it was feared the presence of that vile Merrick might actually discourage donations.

In New York, Diana Vreeland is throwing this marvelous party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and some of her chi-chi guests have already complained that to attend will mean missing the last chapter of "The Jewel in the Crown." A long-time publicist at NBC called a Catskills resort before vacationing there to make sure that in one of its four communal television rooms he would be able to see "Jewel in the Crown." The receptionist told him his was the 20th call she had received asking that same question, and not to worry.

At least one videocassette recorder has been sold so that episodes of "Jewel" would not be missed. An 86-year-old woman in Seattle, realizing that her plans for a Hawaiian cruise overlapped with chapters of the serial, bought a VCR and instructed her daughter to tape each one that aired in her absence. In Brentwood, Calif., Frances Lear, writer and wife of TV producer Norman Lear, says she is confident most of the guests will be taping Chapter 14 tonight while they attend the annual St. Patrick's Day party she gives at her home.

"It was such a great joy," Lear says of "Jewel in the Crown."

In New York, Osborn Elliott, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, has held frequent late Sunday brunches at his Manhattan apartment organized around airings on Channel 13 of "Jewel" episodes. Tonight's will be the last of a series.

How sad, really, there is so little television that one just can't bear to miss. "The Jewel in the Crown" has been that kind of program, the kind of drama one seems to live rather than merely watch. Again there is a lesson within the program to American networks and television producers; this is how television can be exceedingly entertaining and be sophisticated and intelligent as well.

The success of the film as drama owes much to British film and theatrical acting traditions, whatever the miniseries may say about British behavior regarding India. Although Susan Wooldridge only appeared in the first three chapters, it's hard to imagine there's a "Jewel in the Crown" fan about who can't close his eyes and picture her as the wonderfully gawky and stalwart Daphne Manners, whose dalliance with Hari Kumar was the emblematic event that set the whole narrative in motion.

If Peggy Ashcroft wins the Oscar this year as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "A Passage to India," a little of that Oscar is surely going to be in honor of the impact she made as Barbie Batchelor in "The Jewel in the Crown." Even in Hollywood they know a great show when they see one.

Words and images from "The Jewel in the Crown" have made lasting imprints. Some will sink into the mush of the subsconscious and stay there God knows how long. Others can be recalled with little difficulty . . .

"I think he's terribly sad, because he seems so lost," Daphne Manners said of Hari Kumar, the British-educated Hindu she met at the home of her adopted aunt Lady Chatterjee . . .

"I've got a rather good collection of Sousa records," Ronald Merrick said to Daphne as part of a pitifully studied overture. "That's a super radiogram," she said politely to him, later, in his apartment . . .

"I hate it. India," Merrick growled . . .

"A big question mark has been written across the face of India," noted a newsreel . . .

"Life is an illusion; that is what I am teaching," said a Hindu holy man . . .

At an inquiry into circumstances surrounding a rape -- hers -- Daphne Manners said, "One of the men was a Muslim. He was circumcised. If you want to know how I know, I am quite prepared to tell you. Or you can leave it at that . . ."

Finding herself talking privately in a room with Ahmed Kasim, social secretary to the Nawab of Mirat, Sarah Layton realizes this is the first time in her life she has been alone with an Indian who is not a servant . . .

Mabel Layton to Sarah on the rape of Daphne Manners and the incarceration of Hari Kumar: "You seem to be haunted by it. By that whole awful business." Sarah: "Someone should be haunted by it . . ."

"Goodbye, Barbie." -- Mabel's last words to her best friend . . .

Wartime newsreel: "There are colored troops out East willing to lend a hand and a shoulder . . ."

Mohammad Ali Kasim to his son: "There is always the truth." Ahmed: "No, father; there is only what can be believed . . ."

"Are you a hero, or a bloody pansy?" -- Merrick to "Sophie" Dixon, army medical corporal in Pankot . . .

" 'Mum's' what I prefer." -- Sophie on what he wishes to be called . . .

"He's not quite our class." -- Susan Layton's father on Col. Merrick, who wants to marry her . . .

"A typical lower-middle-class idea of upper-class respectability." -- Mildred Layton on the behavior of Barbie Batchelor following Mabel's death . . .

"Are you quite sure you don't want to lose that cherry?" -- Maj. Jimmy Clark to Sarah . . .

"After 300 years of India, we've made this whole damn bloody senseless mess." -- Sarah, in part 14.

A set of apostle spoons, a baby in a ring of fire, a cobra rising in a bathtub, an accusatory and incriminating bicycle, a fateful night in the Bibighar Gardens, a stone thrown through a car window, a bottle of malt whiskey, files stolen from a psychiatrist, a cow tied to railroad tracks, a mushroom cloud rising over the East.

A swatch of ornate lace depicting butterflies caught in a web . . .

And a fanciful painting of Queen Victoria descending upon her Indian empire, which in fact she never visited. In her crown there is a jewel. "The jewel is India, you see," Edwina Crane, the missionary, had explained.

"It's an allegory."