Longest solar eclipse this century shrouds Asia in darkness

The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century pitched a swath of Asia into near-darkness after dawn, as millions watched the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon Wednesday. A woman was killed in a stampede at the Ganges river in India, where devout Hindus had gathered for the eclipse.

Millions of others, gripped by fear, shuttered themselves indoors. India abounds in superstitions and fables based on Hindu mythology, one of which says an eclipse is caused when a dragon-demon swallows the sun, while another myth is that sun rays during an eclipse can harm unborn children.

Thick cloud cover over India and China obscured the sun when the eclipse began at dawn. But the clouds parted in several Indian cities minutes before the total eclipse took place at 8:54 p.m. ET before moving to Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China.

The eclipse — caused when the moon moves directly between the sun and the earth, covering it completely to cast a shadow on earth — lasted almost 4 minutes in India. In some parts of Asia it lasted as long as 6 minutes and 39 seconds.

In Beijing, a thick blanket of grayish smog blotted out the sky and virtually obscured all high-rises in the downtown area of the Chinese capital.

In coastal Shanghai, eclipse watchers were disappointed by a light drizzle in the morning. Dozens of people had gathered at one hotel rooftop with telescopes and special glasses.

But as the sky darkened fully for about five minutes, watchers became excited again.

Holding a big green umbrella and wearing special glasses, Song Chun Yun was prepared to celebrate the occasion in a new white dress.

"Although the rain came, I don't want to screw up the mood. I want to enjoy the special day," she said before dancing and singing in the rain with her two sisters. "I don't want to wait until the next 300 years to see this again."

In Bangladesh too, people came out in droves.

"It's a rare moment, I never thought I would see this in my life," said Abdullah Sayeed, a college student who traveled to Panchagarh town from the capital Dhaka to view it.

He said cars in the town needed to use headlights as "night darkness has fallen suddenly." People hugged each other and some blew whistles when the eclipse began, he said.

One of the best views, shown live on several television channels, appeared to be in the Indian 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.

But the gathering was marred by tragedy when a 65-year-old woman was killed and six people injured in a stampede at one of the river's banks where about 2,500 people had gathered, said police spokesman Surendra Srivastava.

He said it is not clear how the stampede started.

The eclipse — visible only in Asia — is the longest such eclipse since July 11, 1991, when a total eclipse lasting 6 minutes, 53 seconds was visible from Hawaii to South America. There will not be a longer 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 aircraft.

Scientists had said the Indian village of Taregna would have the clearest view, where thousands of scientists, nature enthusiasts and students gathered a day in advance.

But thick clouds and overnight rains provided no spectacle, just a cloudy darkness.

"It was still a unique experience with morning turning into night for more than three minutes," said Amitabh Pande, a scientist with India's Science Popularization Association of Communicators and Educators, in Taregna.

Still, the rain was welcomed by many in this 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.

Millions across India shunned the sight and stayed indoors.

Even in regions where the eclipse was not visible, pregnant women were advised to stay behind curtains over 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.

"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 Krati Jain, 24, who is expecting her first child, said in New Delhi.

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.

At a Buddhist temple 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 of a solar eclipse.

"The eclipse is bad omen for the country," said Pinyo Pongjaroen, a prominent astrologer. "We are praying to boost the fortune of the country."