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Mr. Bose with his family watching the Sun with eclipse viewing goggles. (Santanu Chakrabarti/Santanu Chakrabarti)
Mr. Bose with his family watching the Sun with eclipse viewing goggles. (Santanu Chakrabarti/Santanu Chakrabarti)

Stephanie Nolen

Defying folk beliefs, Indians chase the darkened sun Add to ...

Debashish Bose has travelled to the far corners of the Earth - to Mongolia, Libya and Zambia - to see a solar eclipse. But on Wednesday, he will watch this century's longest eclipse from much closer to his home in Calcutta. "Close to home, just 55,000 feet up," he noted with a delighted chuckle.

Mr. Bose will board a flight with a handful of other eclipse chasers and paste his face against the window to watch the sun go dark. "I choose to see it from heaven this time," he said with a sigh of anticipatory pleasure. "We will be deep in monsoon season in India and I thought of flying out of the clouds to see it this time."

There are eclipse chasers - people who will travel anywhere to witness a solar eclipse - all over the world, but in India they are a different breed. They chase the darkened sun in defiance of deeply rooted religious and cultural beliefs, including a widely held conviction that the safest thing to do in an eclipse is to stay indoors, well away from windows. Mr. Bose's flight, the first in India dedicated to viewing a solar eclipse, has been organized by the Eclipse Chasers Athenaeum, one of a number of science-promotion organizations that are making the eclipse a focus of their efforts to end the superstitions and popularize science.

"Astronomy is the easiest way to explain science to common people - because they can easily see the moon and the stars," said Sunita Mukherjee, an amateur astronomer and spokesperson for the Athenaeum. The eclipse flight is a splashy stunt for the group, but most of its work is done in schools, trying to interest kids in science through looking at the sky.

Many people in the scientific community see eclipses - which come every decade or so - as opportunities. "In India, we always take these events with great enthusiasm because it is an occasion to appeal to people for scientific rationality," said Sabyasabhi Chatterjee, a professor with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. "Many people have superstitions that an eclipse is harmful - that pregnant women will lose their babies, that there will be biological effects on human beings. Many people believe that these rays are poisonous, that something toxic takes place."

Such ideas originate in the ancient texts of Hinduism, which describe dragons and serpents engulfing the sun and the moon, causing them to disappear. The texts prescribe an elaborate code of behaviour to be followed during an eclipse. At the onset, people should bathe; in the middle, they should pray and then give to charity; at its conclusion, they should bathe again, said Hari Mohan Sharma, a Delhi-based astrologer. Food cooked before the eclipse should not be consumed after it. It is an auspicious time for anyone except a menstruating woman to plunge into a wide river. Pregnant women must not stitch clothes, cut vegetables, roast anything edible or "perform any act that is physically or mentally exciting."

For this week's eclipse, Mr. Sharma advises those who consult him not to eat, drink or have sex from the sunset before the eclipse until after its conclusion. "Because this eclipse is in the astrological sign of Cancer, it is believed that low-caste people and tribals will face a lot of hardships in following times - maybe earthquakes or tsunamis or accidents in the sea or spread of water-borne disease," he said. "That could last for about three months - although opinions vary on this."

Mr. Sharma is alarmed at the plans of Mr. Bose and other eclipse chasers to seek out a view of the event. "The texts forbid us from seeing the eclipse," he said. "It will have a very ill effect on your eyes. [Shaded]eyes will make it all the worse. Scientifically speaking, you can go and watch it with your filtration glasses, but astrology forbids it."

Talking about these ideas, Prof. Chatterjee sounded weary. "About 20 years ago when my wife was expecting our first child, there was a lunar eclipse and the neighbours came a few days before and said, 'You shouldn't come out,' " he recalled. Trying to find the source of the myths, the professor consulted his wife's gynecologist, who didn't know either. "But even so, he said, 'Don't come out, don't take a chance!' I was flabbergasted.'" The professor's wife watched the eclipse with him anyway - his whole family enjoys them - and, he added, in case there is any suspicion, "I'd like to assure everyone that my son is perfectly healthy and in law school."

At a mass viewing in Patna, on the banks of the River Ganges, Prof. Chatterjee's institute will hand out filtration glasses and then encourage everyone to have a cup of tea and a biscuit while the sun disappears to counter the idea that it is unsafe to eat during an eclipse.

"Our biggest message is that nature is understandable, and let's all try to do that," he said, then added after a moment's reflection, "That idea is not very popularly held here."

Mr. Bose, who is often joined by his wife and daughter when he chases eclipses, will be taking the $2,000 flight alone. "I come from a middle-class family - and this pursuit puts tremendous economic pressure on me. But still, I don't know why this happens to me every time. I get a high," said Mr. Bose, 44, who runs a printing press. "What I feel is that the light that comes out from the sun - it's so unworldly - I can't explain. It's as if I am seeing God. It's like looking at God. I am an atheist, but still I feel that: I get an eerie feeling."

He added in a mildly mortified, confessional sort of voice, "I have goose pimples just talking about an eclipse."

The special flight will leave Delhi at 4:30 in the morning, and by the start of the eclipse at 6:24 a.m., be over Gaya in the state of Bihar. Organizers chose this location after analyzing several years of weather patterns. This, they reckon, is the site least likely to be clotted with monsoon clouds. The eclipse will be partially visible all over India, but the full event will be visible only over a 220-kilometre-wide path through the northern part of the country, where it will last slightly more than three minutes. The longest and best view - over five minutes - will come in Anqing, China, unless you happen to find yourself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where you could see seven minutes.

The organizers have splashed out on a Boeing 737-700 chartered from an Indian airline, but are nervous that the hefty price tag - three times as much for those on the sun-view side as the Earth-view side - won't sell out.

Ms. Mukherjee's hope lies in students - her group has sponsored 10 of them to travel to China to watch the eclipse. "We are asking everyone in India to step out of their doors and watch this grand event this year," she said. "At least the young people are daring to go out."

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