Century's longest Solar Eclipse

TAREGNA, India (AP) - The longest solar eclipse of the 21st
century created near darkness soon after dawn in a swath of India
stretching from the west coast to the northern plains where
millions gathered in the open to watch.
But millions more shuttered themselves in, gripped by fearful
myths in a country that abounds in Hindu mythology-based
superstitions and fables, one of which says an eclipse is caused
when a dragon-demon swallows the sun.
A thick cloud cover over India that had obscured the sun when
the eclipse began at dawn parted in several cities, minutes before
the total eclipse - caused when the moon covers the sun completely
to cast a shadow on earth - at 6.24 a.m. (0054 GMT).
"We were apprehensive of this cloudy weather but it was still a
unique experience with morning turning into night for more than
three minutes," said Amitabh Pande, a scientist with India's
Science Popularization Association of Communicators and Educators,
after watching the eclipse.
One of the best views of the complete eclipse, shown live on
several television channels, appeared to be in the town of
Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges river, sacred to devout
Hindus.
Thousands of Hindus took a dip in keeping with the ancient
belief that bathing in the river at Varanasi, especially on special
occasions, cleanses one's sins. The eclipse was seen for 3 minutes
and 48 seconds.
The eclipse - visible only in Asia - will move north and east
from India to Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China.
Scientists said the Indian village of Taregna would have the
clearest view, where thousands of scientists, nature enthusiasts
and students gathered.
Their party was spoiled by thick clouds and overnight rains, but
even that was welcome news for the agricultural area which has seen
scant rainfall this monsoon season
"It would have been nice to see the solar eclipse but the rain
is far more important for us," said Ram Naresh Yadav, a farmer.
At its peak, the eclipse lasted 6 minutes and 39 seconds in
other parts of Asia.
It is the longest such eclipse since July 11, 1991, when a total
eclipse lasting 6 minutes, 53 seconds was visible from Hawaii to
South America. There will not be a longer eclipse than Wednesday's
until 2132.
Scientists set up telescopes and other equipment in Taregna a
day in advance to make the most of the window of opportunity
provided by the eclipse.
A 10-member team of scientists from the premier Indian Institute
of Astrophysics in Bangalore and the Indian air force plan to fly
and film the eclipse, an air force press release said.
But millions across India were shunning the sight and planned to
stay indoors.
Even in regions where the eclipse was not visible, pregnant
women were advised to stay indoors in curtained rooms over a belief
that the sun's invisible rays would harm the fetus and the baby
would be born with disfigurations, birthmarks or a congenital
defect.
Krati Jain, a software professional in New Delhi, said she
planned to take a day off from work Wednesday to avoid what she
called "any ill effects of the eclipse on my baby."
"My mother and aunts have called and told me stay in a darkened
room with the curtains closed, lie in bed and chant prayers," said
Jain, 24, who is expecting her first child.
In the northern Indian state of Punjab, authorities ordered
schools to begin an hour late to prevent children from venturing
out and gazing at the sun.
Others saw a business opportunity: one travel agency in India
scheduled a charter flight to watch the eclipse by air, with seats
facing the sun selling at a premium.
Additional police and paramilitary troops were posted around
Patna and Taregna after Maoist rebels called for a strike Wednesday
to protest increases in the price of gas and other essentials.
The rebels, who say they are inspired by Chinese revolutionary
leader Mao Zedong, often target police and government workers.
"Adequate numbers of forces have been deployed at Taregna where
top scientists and researchers are gathering to view the celestial
wonder," said R. Mallar Vizhi, a senior superintendent of police
in Patna.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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