Superstition eclipses astronomers' delight

From Afghanistan to Borneo, millions will awaken today to find the sun blotted out in a total solar eclipse when the moon passes in front of the sun. A few will view the event as a rare astronomical wonder, while a significant number will avert their eyes, believing old superstitions that an eclipse heralds natural calamities and bad luck.

The belt of today's eclipse is less than 100 miles wide, but it will pass in a south-eastern direction over Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, Burma, Thailand, and Borneo, to astronomers' delight and the horror of millions. The science writer, Arthur C Clarke, told the Indian Express: "It is the most awe-inspiring experience imaginable. When it gets dark and the stars come out in the middle of the day, well, everyone becomes a primitive savage again, up against the gods."

While hundreds of scientists and amateur astronomers - including 88 from the UK - are setting up telescopes in deserts and on hilltops along the path of the eclipse, many will spend the morning indoors. Pregnant women will avoid knives for fear that their babies will be born scarred or without limbs; mothers will bind children's legs against snake attacks; and in Thailand and Cambodia, guns will be fired to drive off the hungry dragon devouring the sun.

The Munda tribesmen in Bihar have a different interpretation. When the sun darkens this morning, they will hurriedly pile their belongings and weapons in the courtyard. Long accustomed to suffering at the hands of police, feudal landlords and money-lenders, the tribesmen believe the sun has been imprisoned by demons for not paying off its debts. The Munda believe that only they can set the sun free by offering their few possessions to the demons.

It is considered inauspicious by some that the sun is extinguished during Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, in which mountains of sweets are devoured and fireworks are blasted into the heavens. Hindu pundits are advising that all food must be eaten by the eclipse, so Indian families last night were heroically stuffing down every last syrupy sweet.

In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, 700 miles outside the trajectory of the eclipse, the day is being declared a holiday in the belief that any work undertaken will unravel through bad luck. Throughout India, parents will keep their children home from school, buses will not run and no mail will be delivered.

Astrologers predict troubles ahead for the Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, sectarian strife during the run-up to general elections and more war and political turmoil in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Yet anybody reading the newspapers would probably produce similar gloomy forecasts. It is also a safe bet that somewhere in the region, a flood, a cyclone or an earthquake is bound to happen - because they invariably do.

Even still, Mr Rao is not taking any chances. Although he is attending the United Nations 50th anniversary bash in New York, the Indian press reported that he has ordered Hindu pundits to perform special rites on his behalf to ward off possible ill-effects from the eclipse.