VARANASI, India/WUHAN, China (Reuters) - A total solar eclipse on Wednesday swept across a narrow swathe of Asia, where hundreds of millions of people watched the skies darken, though in some places thick summer clouds blocked the sun.
The longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century cut through the world’s most populous nations, India and China, as it travelled half the globe. It was visible along a roughly 250 km-wide (155 miles) corridor, U.S. space agency NASA said.
In India, where eclipse superstitions are rife, people snaked through the narrow lanes of the ancient Hindu holy city of Varanasi and gathered for a dip in the Ganges, an act believed to bring release from the cycle of life and death.
Amid chanting of Hindu hymns, thousands of men, women and children waded into the river with folded hands and prayed to the sun as it emerged in an overcast sky.
“We have come here because our elders told us this is the best time to improve our afterlife,” said Bhailal Sharma, a villager from central India traveling in a group of about 100.
But for one 80-year-old woman the trip was fatal. Police said she died from suffocation in the crowd of hundreds of thousands that had gathered to bathe in the Ganges.
The eclipse next swept through Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and over the crowded cities along China’s Yangtze River, before heading to the Pacific.
In Hindu-majority Nepal, the government declared Wednesday a public holiday and thousands headed for water.
“Taking a dip in holy rivers before and after the eclipse salvages and protects us from disasters and calamities,” said 86-year-old Sundar Shrestha, who had come to the holy Bagmati river with six children and grand children.
In central China crowds gathered along the high dykes of the industrial city of Wuhan, roaring and waving goodbye as the last sliver of sun disappeared, plunging the city into darkness, although clouds cheated them of part of the spectacle.
“As soon as the totality happened, the clouds closed in so we couldn’t see the corona. That’s a pity,” said Zhen Jun, a man whose work unit had given him the day off to enjoy the spectacle.
But eclipse viewers in central China were luckier than those in the coastal cities near Shanghai, where overcast skies and rain in some places blocked the view of the sun entirely.
STUDYING SUNS’S CORONA
Eclipses allow earth-bound scientists a rare glimpse of the sun’s corona, the gases surrounding the sun, and this year there will be extra time for study.
“This is indeed quite an important event for scientific experiments. Its long duration provides you an opportunity to make very complicated, complex experiments,” said Harish Bhatt, dean at the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Astrophysics.
Scientists in China planned to snap two-dimensional images of the sun’s corona -- up to 2 million degrees Celsius (3.6 million F) hot -- at roughly one image per second, Bhatt said.
The eclipse lasted up to a maximum of 6 minutes, 39 seconds over the Pacific Ocean, according to NASA.
It will be the longest eclipse of this century and will not be surpassed until June 13, 2132, according to NASA (here).
The eclipse is seen as a mixed blessing for millions of Indians. Those who considered it auspicious bathed in holy rivers and ponds for good fortune during the solar blackout.
But astrologers predicted the eclipse spelled bad luck for others. Expectant mothers asked doctors to advance or postpone births to avoid complications or a miserable future for children.
Parents in several schools in India’s capital, New Delhi, kept their children home from classes since the eclipse coincided with breakfast. According to Hindu custom, it is inauspicious to prepare food during an eclipse.
In ancient Chinese culture, an eclipse was an omen linked to natural disasters or deaths in the imperial family. Chinese officials and state media were at pains to reassure the public that city services would run normally.
In modern China, people who wished to see the astronomical rarity clearly tried to escape pollution, avoiding industrial cities where smog smudges the horizon, even on clear days.
“The majority of people decided to go to Tongning, in Anhui, because they’re worried about the serious air pollution from industrial areas in Shanghai,” said Bill Yeung, the president of the Hong Kong Astronomical Society.
Those who chose Shanghai ended up fleeing to inland cities to escape the clouds, he added.
Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma, Matthias Williams, Bappa Majumdar and James Pomfret; Writing by Matthias Williams and Lucy Hornby; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Alex Richardson
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