Tourists journey thousands of miles to watch celestial wonder

I write this with great anticipation and some trepidation: The great solar eclipse of the 21st century is imminent. It will occur on Wednesday and it will be the longest total solar eclipse in our lifetimes, unsurpassed in duration until June 13, 2132.

At 5:28 am local time on Wednesday, a mere 17 minutes after the Sun rises over this ancient city on the banks of the holy Ganga, the shadow of the Moon will slowly creep across the golden disc of the Sun until, at approximately 6:26 am, the Sun will be wholly obscured. The monsoon gods willing — for it is monsoon season — we will have a clear view of one of nature’s most awesome spectacles, which is certain to send a shiver down my spine.

Eclipse tourists like me have journeyed thousands of miles to select locations in India and China to be in the narrow band across the globe where the Sun will be completely covered by the Moon. Some have chartered a jetliner that will follow the path of the eclipse from Delhi, flying over any monsoon clouds. A seat costs Rs 79,000 rupees. When I last checked, the large plane was full.

Express trains to the towns that fall within the band of totality are all sold out, as are hotels.

In a nod to history, thousands of Indians have decided to travel to Taregna, a dusty village some 35 km from Patna. It was there in the sixth century that Arya Bhata, the most famous Indian astronomer of yore, supposedly undertook his celestial observations.
(Arya Bhata is often credited with the invention of zero; what is certain is that he was among the few ancient astronomers who made detailed and accurate eclipse projections.)

For every person who is in the grip of eclipse fever, there is some Indian in whom the event is stirring an old superstition. Many among India’s 850 million Hindus still believe that a solar eclipse is a triumph of evil over good, that Rahu the demon gobbles up Surya the Sun god.

Hindu temples are closed during an eclipse. To ward off evil, Hindus fast, take a ritual bath in the Ganges or in holy lakes and rivers, and chant a special mantra.

In advance of Wednesday’s eclipse, the district administration of Kurukshetra announced that it will provide insurance for up to a million ritual bathers in Brahma Sarovar, a particularly holy lake. Officials in Varanasi and Allahabad, other holy sites for Hindus, are also gearing up for the influx of eclipse bathers. In some other cities, on the other hand, local authorities are making public announcements to fight superstition.

Belief
Eclipses have a long history of fascinating and frightening people. Chinese records from 2300 BC list solar eclipses as being omens of the health and success of the emperor. The same records say that two astronomers were beheaded for failing to predict solar eclipses accurately. Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ contains a reference to the solar eclipse of April 16, 1178 BC, when the Sun vanished from heaven and an evil mist blanketed the Earth.

In the fifth century BC, Herodotus admired Thales’s ability to forecast eclipses. “These late eclipses in the Sun and Moon portend no good to us,” declares Gloucester in Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. And in ‘Samson Agonistes’, Milton bemoaned, “O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, / Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse, / Without all hope of day!”

We know today that solar eclipses are regular, if infrequent, astronomical phenomena.

We know for a fact, for example, that the next total solar eclipse will occur in Patna in 2114 — 105 years from now.

Solar eclipses are also a time to expand our knowledge of the universe. It was during an eclipse on May 29, 1919, that the English astronomer Arthur Eddington successfully tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which holds that light is bent by gravity. Eddington studied stars during the eclipse and found that their positions shifted slightly because the Sun’s gravitational field, in accordance with Einstein’s prediction, had curved the starlight.

During Wednesday’s eclipse, scientists will study the Sun’s hard-to-see outermost layer, the corona, to better understand our star’s magnetic field. This in turn may lead to better predictions of telecommunications outages that are caused by magnetic storms on the Sun.

Those who have seen a total solar eclipse will remember the eerie feeling when the blinding solar disc is blotted out. Three minutes before totality, the sky darkens, many flowers fold up and birds and animals get confused. The temperature drops.

And then the final diamond-like flash just before total darkness sets in! At this stage, only a few wisps of ephemeral light from the solar corona will be visible. This is the time of eerie wonder, which can turn out to be deliciously addictive, as we eclipse-watchers amassed can attest. O for a cloudless sky!

International Herald Tribune

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