Sun, 03/28/2010 - 9:00pm

Pictured: Sean Bean and Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi

Credit: Tony Nutley/Sharpe’s Challenge Ltd. For MASTERPIECE

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Sharpe is appointed to rescue a missing British agent who’s investigating a rebellious maharaja.

Fresh from the Napoleonic Wars, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Sharpe accepts a perilous new mission in British India in the latest installments of the long-running series based on the best-selling novels by Bernard Cornwell. MASTERPIECE CLASSIC presents Sharpe’s Challenge, premiering Sunday, March 28 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT 21.1/cable 1011 and 11),

Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings) returns as the gallant but wayward Richard Sharpe, last seen by MASTERPIECE viewers in the mid 1990s when he was fighting Napoleon’s armies in Spain. Daragh O’Malley rejoins Bean as Sharpe’s best friend, Sergeant Major Patrick Harper.

Also starring is Padma Lakshmi (Emmy-nominated host of “Top Chef”) as the beautiful but treacherous Madhuvanthi, who toys with Sharpe in a secluded fortress where a nefarious plot is afoot.

The London Sunday Times hailed Sharpe’s return to action, calling his opening adventure in India “superbly made and well cast,” adding, “Sharpe rides again.”

“Sharpe was the hero of my first novel back in 1980, and he’s still going strong,” says author Bernard Cornwell, who has written 24 Sharpe books to date, in addition to his other historical series. “I’m delighted that he has made it through the Napoleonic Wars and is still behaving badly — except now in India!”

A born fighter, Sharpe is also a free spirit who’s in his element with the 95th Rifles, an elite unit of advanced-guard skirmishers in the British army. Sharpe retired from the military after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but in the new episodes, his patron, the Duke of Wellington (Hugh Fraser, “Poirot”) sends him on a special mission to the subcontinent. The year is 1817 …

In Sharpe’s Challenge Sharpe is appointed to rescue a missing British agent who’s investigating a rebellious maharaja. Unbeknownst to the English, the uprising is being fomented by Madhuvanthi, the late maharaja’s consort, together with her lover, a renegade English officer named William Dodd (Toby Stephens, “Jane Eyre”). Reluctant to take the assignment, Sharpe relents when he learns that the agent is none other than his old comrade-in-arms Sergeant Harper.

In the course of finding Harper and going undercover with him to get to the bottom of the insurgency, Sharpe comes face to face with Dodd, who 14 years earlier led a massacre of a British garrison in India that left only one survivor — Sharpe. Dodd doesn’t realize his grave mistake in not finishing the job.

In addition, Dodd holds an English general’s daughter (Lucy Brown, “Primeval”) captive, he employs French soldiers who are suspicious of the two British spies and he and Madhuvanthi have a plan that will make the massacre of yesteryear look like child’s play.