England, at stumps on the fourth day, were 56 without loss - needing a further 444 runs to reach a fourth innings victory total of 500.
That was way in excess of the current Test record of 418 for seven made by West Indies against Australia in Antigua four years ago.
However, Andrew Strauss was 23 not out and Alastair Cook 27 not out after they'd batted for 20 overs before the close.
"We are pretty pleased," said England fast bowler James Anderson, who rocked India with a burst of two wickets in four maiden overs with the new ball.
"It was a tricky 20 overs for us there and we are pretty happy we got through it. Our first goal is to save the game and then, if we can keep wickets in hand, we can have a look at where we are."
India, 1-0 up after a seven-wicket win at Trent Bridge following a gutsy draw at Lord's, were themselves on the verge of making history.
They needed to avoid defeat on Monday's final day to become only the third India side, after their 1971 and 1986 predecessors, to win a Test series in England in 15 tours dating back 75 years.
Victory for England would see them maintain a six-year unbeaten run in home Test series, encompassing eight wins and three draws in 11 campaigns, since losing the 2001 Ashes.
England, outplayed for the first three days, had a glimmer of hope when they reduced India to 11 for three in their second innings with Anderson capturing the prize wicket of Sachin Tendulkar, in what could be his last Test in this country, for one.
But experienced left-hander Sourav Ganguly hit back with a dashing 57.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni (36) and VVS Laxman, unbeaten on 48, when the declaration came at 180 for six, added further impetus with a stand of 69.
"It couldn't have gone much better," said Anderson. "It was nice to get Sachin out and to see his stumps all over the ground made it even nicer."
India were 319 runs ahead on first innings but team manager Chandu Borde defended the decision not to enforce the follow-on.
"Knowing the history of this wicket, we chased over 400 runs and we almost won that time (in 1979 when India, set 438, finished on 429 for eight).
"The wicket is playing beautifully. It is not turning or helping the spinners as much as we expected," he added.
"Our bowlers were also tired. We wanted them to be fresh to attack the England batsmen and that's why we didn't enforce the follow-on."
England were a bowler light with left-arm quick Ryan Sidebottom off the field with a side strain sustained during India's first innings.
India captain Rahul Dravid contributed just five to a partnership of 67 with former captain Ganguly in what was likely to be the pair's last Test in England as well.
Dravid, nicknamed 'The Wall', ran out of patience when he was caught at slip by Strauss off Paul Collingwood for 12 made off 96 balls.
Borde said Dravid's innings had to be seen in the context of India's top-order collapse. "We were three down for 11. Somebody has to keep one end going."
Medium-pacer Collingwood's figures of two for 24 in 10 overs were his best in a Test innings.
Dravid's decision not to enforce the follow-on when England were bowled out for 345 was understandable as it seemed this was the only way Michael Vaughan's men could win the match.
But few could have foreseen what happened next.
Tendulkar, after both openers fell cheaply, was soon back in the pavilion as well, bowled by fast bowler Anderson with an inside-edged drive knocking his middle and leg stumps out of the ground.
Earlier Anil Kumble became Test cricket's third most successful bowler outright, ahead of retired Australia quick Glenn McGrath.
The leg-spinner, who could play a key role on Monday, took his 564th wicket in his 118th Test when he had last man Monty Panesar lbw for nine.