More than a million Hindus took advantage of an eclipse of the sun today to bathe away their sins for the next 1,000 years in the sacred waters here.
Cabinet members and beggars gathered in this town, one of the holiest of Hindu holy places, to bathe in two huge tanks -- one nearly a mile long by a half mile wide -- and thereby earn spiritual bliss.
The celebration typified the religious and superstitious fervor that has gripped India on the occasion of the first total eclipse of the sun here in 82 years.
Authorities in Calcutta stopped all public transportation during the two hours this afternoon when the sun was hidden behind the moon. The state of Tamil Nadu banned all automobile traffic.
In New Delhi, Hindu films were shown on television to entertain people afraid to leave their homes.
Pregnant women were warned especially to stay indoors for fear that the unborn babies would be harmed. People refused to eat during the afternoon because of a superstition that food becomes poisoned during an eclipse.
"For us, myth is reality," said Prof. Lokesh Chandra, a member of the upper house of Parliament and head of the International Academy of Indian Culture.
According to Hindu myth, an eclipse occurs when the demon Rahu swallows either the sun or the moon. The demon is trying to get even with the sun and moon for telling on him when he pretended to be a god and drank the nectar of immortality. As a result, Vishnu the creator cut off Rahu's head.
Although Rahu swallows the sun, it is able to slide out since he has no body.
"During a solar eclipse, said Chandra, "we believe the sun is in agony. People must go and take a bath to deliver him from that agony of being devoured by a devil."
Kurukshetra, with the largest holy bathing tank in Asia, was the most popular spot for the ritual. An estimated 1.4 million Indians came here during a three-day eclipse fair ending today. They visited some of the 360 nearby temples in addition to bathing in the holy waters.
According to the Hindu religion, water from all the sacred tanks in the country flows into the two main tanks here during a solar eclipse, thereby giving the bathers the cumulative benefits.
About 5,000 holy men in saffron robes visited the bathing tanks. So did Home Minister Zai Singh and Agriculture Minister Rao Birendra Singh.
The main paths were lined with beggars, some dressed in religious garb, some sufering from hideous deformities, which they exhibit to help get alms. They came from all over the country because giving is part of the religious ritual.
Priestly pandits make money from the pilgrims, holding private pujas, ceremonial offerings to the gods that can be an expensive affair. One Delhi family spent $250 on a puja for eight people. The pandits alone received $60. f
Madan Mohan, who has been a pandit here for 40 years, complained that he did not do as well during this eclipse as he expected.
"I made more than $2,600 during the last eclipse in 1976, even though it was only a partial one over the country. This time I didn't make as much because the timing was all wrong."
He explained that with an afternoon eclipse, people tend to come only for the day and hence leave the pandit a less generous offering.
The astrologers also had a field day predicting the effects of the eclipse. Ramesh Chandra Bhattacharyya, president of the All-India Astrological and Astronomical Society, forecast a trial of evil, including eartquakes and floords and, for India, political conflicts, instability and bloodshed.
Another noted astrologer, B. V. Raman, predicted international traumas, with a "war cloud" over the world from May until next February, political instability for India and freakish weather.
But others said the eclipse would not affect the weather.
While the eclipse was total in southern India where scientists from all over the world set up sophisticated instruments -- the moon covered only two-thirds of the sun here.
The day was hazy, which further limited the impact. It did not get suddenly dusky, nor did the afternoon air suddenly cool as often happens in a solar eclipse.
Nonetheless, through specially darkened lenses it was easy to see the first dramatic bite taken out of the lower left segment of the sun at 2:37 p.m.
Most people, though, concentrated on bathing, chanting religious scriptures or celebrating puja around small fires along the sides of the tanks.
For those who wanted to watch the eclipse, a newspaper gave a way to see the sun without suffering eye damage: fill a wide bucket with water and add either tumeric or cow dung.
"Leave the bucket undisturbed," the formula read, "and you can see the sun's reflection on the bottom."