Millions wonder at darkness in the heavens

Solar eclipse: Asians gather to see Moon obstruct morning light, but India's superstitious stay inside to ward off evil spirits
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The Independent Online
TIM MCGIRK

Rajasthan

In confusion, the birds stopped flying. The sun was still shining in the Rajasthan desert, and yet it grew cold. The shadows cast by the neem trees spread until the earth and the sky ran together like quicksilver. India's last total solar eclipse of the century was beginning.

The total solar eclipse was seen by millions across Asia. It stretched in a narrow band, around 100 miles wide, from Afghanistan through Pakistan, northern India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, and Borneo. In Bangkok, the eclipse made the rush-hour traffic jams even worse as people stopped to gaze heavenwards at the darkening morning sky.

India's Taj Mahal, which was only partially in the eclipse's path, was bathed in pearly twilight, while the sky blackened completely over Cambodia's Angor Wat temples.

Nobody wants to see a solar eclipse alone, when the light of the heavens goes out, and along the road to Jaipur, incongruous groups - shepherd boys, lorry drivers, tourists and a few amateur astronomers - huddled together in awe of the eclipse's dark beauty.

The shepherds passed around a blackened glass, or tried viewing the eclipse through a sweet wrapper. They sneaked hurried glimpses at the Sun as though peeking through a doorway at something forbidden, while beside them astronomers twirled the knobs on their tinted-lens telescopes and cursed every time the elusive eclipse slid from sight.

On the highway between Delhi and Jaipur, a man appeared selling day- glow green sunglasses - "special for eclipse only"- at five rupees a pair.

As the Moon crossed in front of the Sun, I could see an effect known as the Diamond Ring, in which the sunrays blaze out from a deep valley on the Moon's edge like a sparkling gem. The sky was dark enough, in mid- morning, to see a thorny cluster of stars. In seconds, the Sun was entirely blotted out by the Moon. Solar flares, some slithering out into space for 3 million miles, became visible. I could see where the ancients believed that during an eclipse, the Sun was being devoured by angry serpents. These superstitions die hard; far off in the Rajasthan desert, a gun was fired, presumably at the eclipse.

The complete solar eclipse lasted around 30 seconds. To witness this, I had dragged my family out of bed at 4am and driven 100 miles down the Jaipur road, one of the most perilous in all India. Usually, the highway streams with traffic, but because of bad luck associated with eclipses, many drivers stayed at home.

Not all the drivers did, though. Where the highway narrowed for a bridge, three lorries had crashed. As we stopped to examine the wreck, a Sikh asked if we were going to see the eclipse. He was. Was the eclipse inauspicious? The Sikh glanced at the lorries and shrugged: "No, this is a daily occurrence".

Returning to the capital, I found the streets deserted even though it was supposed to be a normal work day. People who had stayed in New Delhi during the eclipse said it had grounded thousands of birds.

Even though Hindu astronomers have predicted eclipses since the fifth century, superstitions about the curse of the gods still grip many Indians. Pregnant women were warned to stay indoors to protect their foetuses, and many Hindus refused breakfast because the eclipse's shadow rays are believed to contaminate food.

Thousands of Hindu holy men, known as sadhus, converged on a large tank at Kurukshetra, 70 miles west of New Delhi, to wash away the polluting effects of the eclipse. Many Indians shuttered themselves up at home, watching the event on television or performing ceremonies to ward off the personal and national calamities which are thought to follow in an eclipse's wake.

Earlier guards at Angor Wat in Cambodia had been disarmed to stop them from shooting in a panic at the dragon swallowing the Sun. Thousands of Buddhist monks and visitors also gathered to watch whether the eclipse would bring good luck or bad. They deemed the eclipse to be good, but for the hundreds of astronomers who gathered along the path of the eclipse, there was never any doubt.

Where to watch the next eclipses

9 March 1997 for 2 minutes 50 seconds in north-east Asia

26 February 1998 for 4 minutes 9 seconds in South

America and the Caribbean

11 August 1999 for 2 minutes 3 seconds in Europe, including Cornwall

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