AUGUST 18, 1868
India’s last longest total solar eclipse was witnessed on this day more than a century ago.
Like the buzz today, records with the National Archives show the 1868 eclipse too
generated a lot of enthusiasm.
There were no modern instruments then. The Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society provided instruments and trained officers to observe the eclipse. They were helped by the Major Tennant of the Royal Bengal Engineers.
The Major Tennant’s cost estimate for completing the eclipse observations was
Rs 21,961 and 4 annas.
A ‘silver glass reflecting telescope’ was supplied to the Major Tennant. It was later needed to observe a total solar eclipse from Cadiz, Gibraltar, Oran and Catania in December 21-22, 1870.
The records show Lt Col J.T. Walker, superintendent of the Trignometrical Survey of India, wrote that nowhere could an eclipse be observed under such favorable circumstances as in India and ‘very many years will elapse’ before its recurrence.
On Tuesday evening, 11-year-old Amit, worried about the early evening cloud cover above Taregna, has been pestering his father, Dinesh, with one question, “We’ll see the eclipse, na?”
His concern is genuine and shared by the thousands of people gathered outside the new hospital in this town some hour-and-a-half away from Patna.
For the next time any spot in India gets to see a total solar eclipse — lasting 4 minutes 30 seconds in Arunchal Pradesh and 3 minutes 40 seconds here in Taregna — the date will be June 3, 2114, and frisky young Amit will be 116 years old.
By late evening and after some rain, the sky above the town is clear as a whistle, although the bright lights installed all around the hospital for Wednesday morning’s special event make the stars difficult to see.
On the hospital’s rooftop, along with astronomers from various parts of India and some from abroad adjusting their telescopes, plastic red chairs arranged for the next day’s VIPs — with chief minister Nitish Kumar as the star attraction — are bouncing off bright lights, not from the sky but from visiting television crews.
Pankaj Bahmba is a member of SPACE, a Delhi-based astronomical group. He has come to Taregana with 12 other astronomers, including one from Namibia. A dedicated ‘eclipse chaser’, having seen his last total solar eclipse in Russia on August 1, 2008, Bahmba tried to put up a brave face regarding the possibility of his vision being literally clouded the next day.
“The totality line (points from where a total eclipse can be seen) runs through 13 states, from Gujarat to Assam,” he says.
“But this place lies at central beam.”
Amitabh Pandey, founder president of SPACE, is keen that people observe the “beauty of the phenomenon”. Most people, he admits, will be looking at the sun with a mix of fear and excitement.
But even among the superstitious, the mood is not all about bad tidings.
Sunita Devi, who has travelled from the nearby town of Masauri with her extended family, says, “If you pray during the eclipse, good things happen.”
Her brother, Ajay, is less spiritually inclined.
A stone’s throw away from the special gate made to welcome the chief minister for the “auspicious occasion”, he says, “I’m here to see Nitish-ji” — whose arrival was more of a certainty among both the astronomically and astrologically inclined than that of the vision of the moon blocking the sun at 5.29 am today, some hours before you are holding this paper.