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Thousands gather across India to watch eclipse

SCIENTISTS, students and nature enthusiasts gathered in open spaces in parts of India today to watch the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century, although heavy cloud cover and overnight rains threatened to spoil the party.

The eclipse began at about 5.30 am (0000gmt) and was seen first in the eastern city of Gauhati, where the moon covered a slice of the sun to start the hour-long phenomenon that will culminate in the total eclipse.

The eclipse - visible only in Asia - will reach its peak in India at about 6:20 a.m. local time (0050 GMT).

It will then move north and east to Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China.

The eclipse will be seen for 3 minutes and 48 seconds in the Indian village of Taregna, where scientists say residents will have the clearest view. Thousands of scientists, nature enthusiasts and students gathered in Taregna but when dawn broke the sun was not visible because of thick clouds.

Television networks reported clouds in most parts of India where the eclipse was supposed to be visible.

At its peak it will last 6 minutes and 39 seconds in other parts of Asia. It 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 today's until 2132.

"The excitement and uniqueness of a total eclipse has inspired us to visit this place. NASA had declared that this place would the best place to watch the celestial event," said Michel Vancaster, an amateur astronomer who traveled from Belgium to witness the eclipse in Taregna.

Public announcements informed the thousands gathered outside in Taregna that the first contact between moon and sun had taken place; they could not see for themselves because clouds obscured the sun after moderate rains hit the village overnight.

Still thousands of people gathered on rooftops and in open spaces. People from surrounding villages began walking toward Taregna as early as 4.00 am (2230 GMT).

Television pictures showed thousands of people gathering in the northern city of Kurukshetra to take a dip in the river there during the eclipse, which devout Hindus believe will cleanse them of their sins.

Scientists set up telescopes and other equipment in Taregna a day in advance to make the most of the window of opportunity provided by the eclipse.

"We are hoping to make some valuable observations on the formation of asteroids around the sun," Pankaj Bhama, a scientist with India's Science Popularization Association of Communicators and Educators, said Tuesday.

A 10-member team of scientists from the premier Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore and the Indian air force plan to fly and film the eclipse, an air force press release said.

But millions across India were shunning the sight and planned to stay indoors, gripped by fearful myths.

Even in regions where the eclipse was not visible, pregnant women were advised to stay indoors in curtained rooms 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.

Krati Jain, a software professional in New Delhi, said she planned to take a day off from work today 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.


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