, India, July 22 – The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia on Wednesday, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China.
Ancient superstition and modern commerce came together in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity likely to end up being the most watched eclipse in history, due to its path over Earth’s most densely inhabited areas.
While bad weather confounded some eclipse watchers, tens of thousands of people gathered at dawn on the banks of the Ganges river in Varanasi where a largely cloudless morning offered a stunning view.
With Hindu priests conducting special prayers, the crowds cheered and then raised their arms in salutation as the sun re-emerged from behind the moon, before they took a spiritually purifying dip in the river’s holy waters.
A total solar eclipse usually occurs every 18 months or so, but Wednesday’s spectacle was special for its maximum period of "totality" — when the sun is wholly covered by the moon — of six minutes and 39 seconds.
Such a lengthy duration will not be matched until the year 2132.
State-run China Central Television provided minute-by-minute coverage of what it dubbed "The Great Yangtze River Solar Eclipse" as the phenomenon cut a path along the river’s drainage basin.
Millions of people in areas of southwestern China enjoyed a clear line of sight, according to images broadcast on CCTV, but the view was obstructed along much of its path by cloudy weather.
Shanghai viewers braved rain and overcast skies to witness the spectacle as darkness shrouded China’s commercial hub at 9:36 am (0136 GMT).
"It is working hours now, but with such a spectacle going on, you don’t want to miss it. The experience is truly thrilling," said Allen Chen, a Shanghai office worker, who stepped out into the street to witness the event.
And despite the weather, hotels along Shanghai’s famed waterfront Bund packed in the customers with eclipse breakfast specials.
Those who could afford it grabbed expensive seats on planes chartered by specialist travel agencies that promised extended views of the eclipse as they chased the shadow eastwards.
The cone-shaped shadow, or umbra, created by the total eclipse first made landfall on the western Indian state of Gujarat shortly before 6:30 am (0100 GMT).
It then raced across India and squeezed between Bangladesh and Nepal before engulfing most of Bhutan, traversing the Chinese mainland and slipping back out to sea off Shanghai.
From there it moved across the islands of southern Japan and veered into the western Pacific.
In Mumbai, hundreds of people who trekked up to the Nehru planetarium clutching eclipse sunglasses found themselves reaching for umbrellas and rain jackets instead as heavy overnight rain turned torrential.
"We didn’t want to watch it on television and we thought this would be the best place," said 19-year-old student Dwayne Fernandes. "We could’ve stayed in bed."
Others opted to stay home and shuttered their windows, fearful of the effects of the lunar shadow which some believe can lead to birth defects in pregnant women.
Superstition has always haunted the moment when Earth, moon and sun are perfectly aligned. The daytime extinction of the sun, the source of all life, is associated with war, famine, flood and the death or birth of rulers.
The ancient Chinese blamed a sun-eating dragon. In Hindu mythology, the two demons Rahu and Ketu are said to "swallow" the sun during eclipses, snuffing out its light and causing food to become inedible and water undrinkable.
Some Indian astrologers had issued predictions laden with gloom and foreboding, and a gynaecologist at a Delhi hospital said many expectant mothers scheduled for July 22 caesarian deliveries insisted on changing the date.
The last total solar eclipse was on August 1 last year and also crossed China.
The next will be on July 11, 2010, but will occur almost entirely over the South Pacific, where Easter Island — home of the legendary moai giant statues — will be one of the few landfalls.