TAREGNA, India — The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century created near darkness in daytime, along a swath that stretched from India to China and the South Pacific.
Millions gathered in the open to watch the spectacle, but millions more shuttered themselves inside their houses, gripped by fearful myths.
One Hindu fable says eclipses are caused by a dragon-demon that swallows the sun, but modern-day astronomers have a less threatening explanation: They say the phenomenon occurs when the orbital mechanics are just right for the moon to cover the sun completely, casting a shadow on Earth.
A thick cloud cover over India obscured the sun when the eclipse began at dawn, but parted in several Indian cities just minutes before the beginning of totality.
"We were apprehensive of this cloudy weather, but it was still a unique experience with morning turning into night for more than three minutes," Amitabh Pande, a scientist with India's Science Popularization Association of Communicators and Educators, said after watching the eclipse.
Great view from the Ganges
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 there for 3 minutes and 48 seconds.
The eclipse — visible only in Asia — moved eastward from India to Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China.
Scientists had predicted the Indian village of Taregna would have the clearest view, and this was where thousands of scientists, nature enthusiasts and students gathered. The 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.
Longest stretch until 2132
At its peak over the Pacific, the total phase of the eclipse lasted 6 minutes and 39 seconds. That made it the longest-lasting total eclipse since July 11, 1991, when a stretch of totality lasting 6 minutes and 53 seconds was visible from Hawaii to South America. There will not be a longer total eclipse than Wednesday's until 2132.
A 10-member team of scientists from the premier Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore and the Indian air force filmed the eclipse from an airplane, an air force press release said. But millions across India shunned 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, due to 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.
What causes a solar eclipse?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.
Eclipse mania also gripped China. In Beijing, enthusiasts rushed to buy solar filters to watch the partial eclipse safely. "It's quite exciting," Chen Xintian said as she made her purchase. "I've never seen an eclipse before. It's a rare event, and I am very happy."
The track of totality passed right through Shanghai, China's largest city. This led some observers to say that Wednesday's eclipse could have the largest potential audience in history. However, because of Shanghai's cloud cover, many residents couldn't see the actual eclipse above the morning darkness.
The next total solar eclipse is due to occur on July 11, 2010, and will be visible from the South Pacific and parts of South America. That dose of totality will last no longer than 5 minutes and 20 seconds. The continental United States isn't due for a total solar eclipse until Aug. 21, 2017, but on that day, the track of totality will stretch from Oregon to South Carolina.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.
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