Put into bat on overcast conditions, captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni waged a lone battle amidst the ruins with a gutsy 82 as wickets tumbled at regular intervals on a seaming Oval track.
India could have been in a far grave situation but for a fighting 58-run last wicket partnership between Dhoni and Ishant Sharma.
Ishant, who returned to the team after missing the last two Tests due to injury, gave Dhoni perfect company from the other end to take India close to the 150-run mark before England finally drew curtains on India's innings in 61.1 overs.
England were 62 for no loss in 19 overs at stumps on the opening day of the match.
Skipper Alastair Cook (24 runs, 49 balls, 2 fours) and Sam Robson (33 runs, 65 balls, 5 fours) were unbeaten at the crease.
The English opening duo defied the new ball even as the Indian medium-pacers toiled hard in the final session to peg the hosts back.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar (0-25), Ishant (0-12) and Varun Aaron (0-14) searched for wickets in futility. Stuart Binny (0-7) also bowled two overs.
Perhaps the closest the Indian bowlers came to a breakthrough was early on, in the ninth over, when Kumar caught Cook plumb in front of the wicket but umpire Paul Reiffel throught otherwise.
Cook and Robson then settled down as runs started to flow easily and in the process brought up their 50-run partnership in the 16th over of the innings.
Earlier, Chris Jordan (3/32) and Chris Woakes (3/30) shared six wickets between them to bowl India out cheaply.
James Anderson (2/51) and Stuart Broad (2/27) also chipped in with four wickets for the hosts.
Dhoni was the lone Indian batsman to produce some fight and was the last man out after scoring his 33rd Test fifty which helped his side recover from a precarious 36 for five at one stage.
After tea, Dhoni added another 23 runs for the last-wicket stand with Ishant (7 not out) to register the highest partnership for India in this beleaguered
The visitors were reeling at 43 for five at lunch and needed Dhoni and Binny (5) to show some grit.
The conditions never got better as the ball swung the whole day under intense cloud cover. But Binny (5) could only add one run to his pre-lunch score before he nicked one of Anderson's many outswingers to Cook at first slip.
Ravichandran Ashwin (13 runs, 17 balls, 1 four) then came to the crease and became only the third Indian batsman to reach double figures in the innings. In doing so he put up 24 runs for the seventh wicket with Dhoni, the second-highest partnership of the innings, and helped India cross the 50-run mark in the 32nd over of the day.
But unlike Binny he didn't focus on staying long at the crease and played his shots instead. The over aggressive attitude eventually resulted in his dismissal, edging Woakes to Joe Root at gully with the fielder holding a low catch. The batsman stood his ground but was given out after TV umpire was convinced that the catch was clean.
Kumar (5) was guilty of playing a poor shot, trying to smack a wide delivery from Jordan and only managing to be caught behind. Aaron (1) followed suit as Woakes took a simple return catch of his own bowling.
Aaron's dismissal brought Ishant to the crease and he rode his luck at times, whilst adapting a dour methodology to stay at the crease.
Ishant, however, was lucky to survive as he was dropped on one by Ian Bell at second slip off Jordan in the 48th over.
Three overs later, Dhoni reached a well-deserved half-century off 107 balls, with 10 fours and the duo saw off the English attack until tea.
Earlier sent into bat, India got off to a horrendous as a lacklustre batting by the top-order left them gasping at 43 for five at lunch.
India's top order crumbled yet again after Cook won the toss and invited the visitors to bat under cloudy skies.
Gautam Gambhir was the first to go, out for a first-ball duck off Anderson. The left-hander intended to play the ball and then left it, as the massive outswinger kissed the open face of his bat on its way to keeper Jos Buttler.
It brought out Cheteshwar Pujara (4) to the crease and he struggled out in the middle for quite some time before a Broad inswinger went past his defences and ended his misery.
India's other big hope, Virat Kohli (6) looked as if he had made some slight changes to his stance in a bid to counter his poor form and faults against Anderson's outswingers. It seemed to work for a while as he saw off his nemesis, even driving him once.
But it fell to nought as he left an incoming delivery from Jordan and umpire Kumar Dharamsena had no option but to give him out LBW as the ball kissed his pads. However the TV replays later suggested that the ball may have missed the wickets.
Two overs later Ajinkya Rahane (0) offered a simple return chance to Jordan as he picked two wickets in the space of eight balls.