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Two billion people cast into darkness as total eclipse crosses Asia

Posted by Ramesh Khati on July 23, 2009

Hindu holy men watch the eclipse in Allahabad, India

Hindu holy men watch the eclipse in Allahabad, India

Tens of thousands of people — from renowned astrophysicists to farmers — descended on a muddy Indian village yesterday to watch the best solar eclipse of the 21st century from what was predicted to be one of the finest vantage points on the planet.

There was only one problem: when the key moment came, it was cloudy.

The luxuriously thick monsoon cloud cover that had formed over Taregna in northern India overnight obscured any view of the heavens from the moment “first contact” was made between the Moon’s shadow and the Sun to the point of totality — when the Sun was completely obscured and the sky turned black.

Over Taregna, where every rooftop was populated with throngs of spectators as the Sun appeared to set just an hour after rising, the eclipse lasted three minutes and 38 seconds. The descent into darkness was met with whooping and hollering from a massive crowd, who had spent an hour listening to a state-sponsored lecture seeking to dispel the belief that eclipses portend ill fortune.

But the return of daylight was met with bigger cheers.

The village is said to be where Aryabhatta, the most renowned Indian astronomer of antiquity, observed the heavens. Some believe that he invented the concept of “zero” here. He also made some of the earliest accurate predictions of when eclipses would occur.

Across the country millions had gathered. For the most part predictions of disaster did not come true, although a woman aged 65 was killed in a stampede at Varanasi, a city on the banks of the Ganges, where devout Hindus had gathered to bathe.

Thousands had also gathered at the ancient Altar of the Sun in Beijing, while hundreds of millions poured into streets across China to gaze as the sky darkened from the west of the country and along a track that followed the Yangtze River before slipping out to sea from Shanghai.

Shelagh Lester Smith, a Briton who had made the journey to Shanghai for the once-in-a-lifetime sight of such a long total eclipse, said: “It was very exciting. It felt like the end of the world had come.”

Anxious to avoid panic among farmers perplexed by the disappearance of the Sun or accidents as streets darkened, China’s State Council issued a directive to local government to take additional measures. They turned on streetlights and even provided special lighting at Shanghai Zoo in case animals took fright. The eclipse was visible in its totality over an area of China 250km (155 miles) wide and 10,000km (6,000 miles) long.

Standing on the large marble platform that is the 16th-century altar in Beijing where the emperor would make ritual sacrifices to the Sun, hundreds watched the penumbra. One man said: “I’m happy I stayed despite the clouds because I saw it and it was very impressive. This is a rare chance in someone’s life.”

In the Thai capital, Bangkok, dozens of monks led a mass prayer at a Buddhist temple to ward off what they said would be ill-effects.

The eclipse began in the Arabian Sea. The band of complete darkness first hit the western Indian state of Gujarat shortly before 6.30am local time. The shadow then raced at 15 times the speed of sound across the subcontinent before reaching Nepal and blacking out much of Bhutan. After clipping Bangladesh and crossing Burma, it moved on to China before hitting the ocean once more off Shanghai.

The trajectory is likely to have made it the most widely experienced eclipse in history, according to Nasa, with an estimated two billion people cast into total or partial darkness.

It was, however, the duration of the blackout that made this eclipse extraordinary. Over the Pacific Ocean the Sun disappeared for six minutes and 39 seconds, a duration that will not be matched until the year 2132.

Source: The Times

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