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Hindus Wash Away Their Sins During Darkness of Solar Eclipse

October 24, 1995

KURUKSHETRA, India (AP) _ Searching for salvation, about 500,000 devout Hindus entered sacred lakes and rivers, bowed their heads and prayed toward the sun Tuesday during India’s first total eclipse in 15 years.

As the skies darkened over Kurukshetra, a Hindu holy town in Haryana state, longhaired and bearded Hindu ascetics _ some naked, others wearing a strip of cloth around their waists _ led pilgrims through the ritual.

``A wash in the lake during a solar eclipse washes sins away for generations,″ said Baba Santosh Giri, a priest at a Kurukshetra temple, after he emerged from the water.

Many people in this mostly Hindu nation believe that such a wash in Kurukshetra can free them from reincarnation, the arduous cycle of death and rebirth, and allow them to enter the blissful state of nirvana. Kurukshetra is the site of an epic Hindu battle between good and evil.

Similar ceremonies took place in lakes and rivers across northern India, including the sacred Ganges.

``Salvation is verily his who bathes or gives alms at Kurukshetra at the time of a solar eclipse,″ says the Hindu epic, ``The Mahabharata.″

Hindu mythology says an eclipse is caused when the demon Rahu flies across the sun to obscure it. That explanation still holds sway among many of India’s 900 million people, even those who understand the scientific reasons for an eclipse.

``Even highly educated people can be subjected to a fear as they forget their school lessons on eclipses,″ said Nirupama Raghavan, an astrophysicist at New Delhi’s Nehru Planetarium.

To dispel myths about the eclipse, the government handed out 100,000 strips of foil needed to watch it safely and bused thousands of children, teen-agers and college students to planetariums.

But in Kurukshetra, even police constable Rakesh Kumar, who shed his uniform and joined the worshipers while on duty, said: ``The eclipse looks like a demon nibbling at the sun.″

Elsewhere in India, many people stayed home to pray and perform rituals to ward off the evil of the eclipse, which occurred one day after Diwali, a major religious holiday celebrated by lighting candles and setting off fireworks.

Many Hindus refuse to eat during an eclipse because they believe its shadows contaminate cooked food.

The darkened sky even threw wildlife into confusion.

Painted storks, ibises and other water fowl began nesting, as they do at dusk, when the eerie half-light settled over the marshes of Keoladeo National Park, India’s largest bird sanctuary. Fish jumped out of the water.

At Neem Ka Thana, a sleepy hamlet in the northern state of Rajasthan, Indian scientists were joined by astronomers from Russia, the United States and Brazil who used the darkness of a total eclipse to study the corona, the sun’s periphery.

``It was an experience of a lifetime,″ said Behram Antia, an astronomer who flew in from San Francisco.

Two Indian air force fighter jets, equipped with special cameras, soared high above India to film the eclipse, which passed through six states in a 30-mile-wide belt.

In the nearby state of Uttar Pradesh, photographers boarded hot-air balloons to film the shadows of the eclipse as they passed over the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra.

Earlier Tuesday, the total solar eclipse was the first seen in Cambodia and its Southeast Asian neighbors since 1955 _ and the last one expected until 2070.

As 30,000 soldiers and police stood guard, thousands of tourists and Cambodians viewed the eclipse amid the soaring towers of Angkor Wat, the most famous edifice of the temple complex built between the ninth and 12th centuries.

In the Philippines, where traditional belief holds that the sun is swallowed by a gigantic bird during an eclipse, people on Basilan Island played stringed instruments and chanted to drive the bird away.

In Bangkok, Thailand, tens of thousands watched the rare solar event, including Princess Sirindhorn, daughter of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who led an observation ceremony broadcast live on television.

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