Millions watch eclipsed sun rise over India; 2 die in Varanasi | delhi | Hindustan Times
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Millions watch eclipsed sun rise over India; 2 die in Varanasi

delhi Updated: Jul 22, 2009 19:03 IST

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Faith merged seamlessly with the wonders of science as the devout and the curious gathered on rooftops, planetariums, riverbanks and open grounds to watch the longest solar eclipse of the century in India.

The world of pedantic textbooks came to spectacular life Wednesday as the morning sky darkened to night and the sun was reduced to a flaming rim of fire. Millions of Indians across the country watched the celestial play of moon and sun that, much to the disappointment of eclipse watchers, ducked behind clouds in many places.

Cutting a swathe across the expanse of India, the eclipse was first seen at 5.28 am in Surat, Gujarat, in the west of India and last at 7.40 am in eastern Dibrugarh, Assam in the east of India.

The spectacle, marred by a cloud cover in many places, lasted six minutes and 44 seconds. The next time it will take place will be 123 years later in 2132.

The total solar eclipse was visible in places like Surat, Indore and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Patna and Taregna in Bihar, and Guwahati in Assam. The rest of the country experienced a partial eclipse.

In a tragic fallout, two people were killed in the Hindu pilgrimage town Varanasi where thousands gathered on the banks of the Ganga to take a holy dip.

"One person drowned and the other got crushed in a stampede," said P.C. Meena, deputy inspector general of police (DIG).

While a dip in the waters of holy rivers is traditionally believed to rid a person of his sins, Hindus believe that a solar eclipse showers rays that make the water even holier.

A sea of humanity also converged in Kurukshetra, the land of the epic Mahabharata in Haryana, where 1.5 million arrived to take a dip in the Brahmsarovar, the lake of Lord Brahma, the Hindu god considered the creator of the universe.

As the faithful congregated, so did the scientists, amateur astronomers, students and tourists at various places. Many in the village of Taregna, about 35 km from the Bihar capital Patna, which was catapulted into the limelight after US space agency NASA declared it the best place to watch eclipse.

Taregna has an ancient connection with astronomy, having been one of the two places used by 6th century Indian astronomer-mathematician Aryabhatta for his celestial studies.

On Wednesday, the overcast skies cast a dampener and the rare celestial event unfolded behind rain clouds. But the clouds did part momentarily, and for some that was enough.

A moved Gaurav Singh said: "It was a memorable moment when I saw the skies dim into night in the early morning and the solar eclipse reached its totality."

A cheer went up as the crowds that had given up on watching anything suddenly saw the eclipsed sun through the clouds.

It was the moment they had almost given up on.

Belgian Mitchell Mark had been chasing the eclipse for 10 years - and missed it again.

"I missed a total eclipse in Europe in 1999 and missed it again this time," said Mark, one amongst a group of Belgian tourists.

Not so for the group of 50 people who chased the eclipse at 41,000 feet above the ground in a chartered flight over Gaya in Bihar.

The most beautiful part of the eclipse was when sun was completely covered by the moon and the corona became visible, forming a faint crown of pearly white light. Corona is the outer atmosphere of the sun, which is visible only during a total solar eclipse.

In Delhi, around 3,000 people came to the Nehru Planetarium and National Science Centre.

"It is completely fascinating and so beautiful to see. I thank god that I am lucky to watch it," said Nikhil Gupta, a Class 10 student.

Added Arunim Das, an amateur astronomer in Guwahati: "It was a momentous event, a strange darkness enveloping the morning as crickets and birds chirped and stars became visible for a fleeting few minutes."

It was the stuff of poetry and also the opportunity for some cold scientific calculations.

The Indian Air Force undertook aerial sorties to help Indian scientists study the phenomenon.

"The mission was a huge success. We got excellent footage of the eclipse," said Dr Vinay B Kamble, director, Vigyan Prasar.

For researchers at the Van Vihar national park in Madhya Pradesh, it was an opportunity to study animal behaviour.

"Birds especially depend on the sun for orientation and direction and they will be completely disoriented during the brief blackout (of total eclipse)," S S Rajput, director of the Van Vihar National Park said.

Rationalists had their day too, with some of them in Hyderabad, for instance, gathering to tuck into a hearty breakfast to bust the myth that no food should be eaten during the eclipse.

Superstition and science. It was all rolled into one in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Till the next one, in 2132.