My 5th Solar Eclipse
My 3rd successful Total Eclipse
My 3rd continent on the chase
My expedition to India in 1995, which included Singapore, Malasia, and Bali in Indonesia, was one of those intense life-changing experiences. I returned home a different person. A person with a more complete picuture of the world and of humanity’s journey on this planet. India has the power to change your mind. At once a visceral confrontation with reality and a subtle invitation to reflection, India is surely one of those countries that defines life on Earth. I loved it. But I’m not so sure how important it is that you like India – it’s more that India forces you into a conversation with it. And that conversation is what the stuff of life is all about.
After a few days in New Delhi getting used to the insane traffic and off-world odours that waft through the streets, I make my way to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and our starting point for the eclipse.
Arriving at the outskirts of the Taj, you have no indication of the glorious structure that waits beyond. The little stone ticket booth where you pay your admission could have easily been missed in the mayhem of the tiny streets surrounding this magnificent mausoleum. The first hint that you are about to experience something extraordinary comes on the walk up to the gateway that guards the entrance to the actual Taj grounds.
The line-ups to get through the gateway are astronomical. Men and women enter separately, and everyone is searched for weapons, paint, etc. When you emerge on the other side, miraculously, it is there. The Taj Mahal. The most awe-inspiring structure I have ever seen in my life.
It is absolutely breathtaking. At the perimeter of the grounds, from where it first comes into view, you are still a good 400 metres from touching it and the sheer enormity sets it. I was baffled and silenced at once. The form and the majesty of the place to my eyes was enough, then the feeling set in. The spirit element beholding the Taj as I approached the centre mosque was as palpable as the visible wonder itself. I could not tear my eyes from it. It was actually magnetic. As I got closer and closer the impact became greater and greater. As I slipped off my sandals to walk upon the cool marble I became utterly convinced that I was in a fairy tale. Built by Emperor Shahjehan as an expression of his deep love for his wife, it actually took 20,000 workers over 22 years to complete.
You are invited to spend as much time as you like hanging out on the beautifully crafted terraces that surround the mosque where Shahjehan and his wife are buried. Knowing that it was built from love gives this place a very special energy. The Taj is a living thing. It interacts with you. The peace that emanates from its walls kept me there for hours and motivated several return visits.
Our eclipse observing site is Fatehpur Sikri. Located a few hours south of Agra, it was the political capital of India’s Mughal Empire in the 16th century before it was abandoned due to a lack of water. Now it is an historic site with a beautiful central tomb and located directly in the eclipse path. Our driver, Marouf, arrives at 4am to take us there. For the next few hours, the fright and shock of rural India goes by out the window. Streets are unbelievable – peasants sleep in the gutter and roam about amongst the garbage and debris. Pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles, cars of all sizes, buses, vans, massive trucks all jockey to be in front of the other guy. Opposing traffic lines mean nothing – you drive anywhere. We almost kill people regularly. And we see accidents every few miles. How India became one of the world’s most populous countries doesn’t seem to make any sense.
I was thrilled when I saw our location. We have nothing ancient and sacred like this in Canada. And even though these structures had been standing since the 16th century it was new to me, and I began to explore the site with a sense of excitement that only eclipse day can generate. It was barely 6:30am and yet there were thousands of people here. Mostly local Indians, some tourists, and eclipse chasers from around the world. Everyone seemed to have the same unconventional, exotic look to them as if the mainstream was unaware this was happening at all and sent no delegates.
The massive red-stone stairway that leads to the gates of the temple are the obvious choice to observe from as they face directly towards the rising sun. I frequently refer to the NASA eclipse bulletin for technical information about the eclipse and suddenly find myself explaining what we’re going to see to groups of people gathered around me. At an eclipse you tend to gravitate to anyone who seems to know more than you, and at this location that person was me! And although this is a job I am more than happy with, I wasn’t prepared to be mauled by the local kids who would jump on me, grabbing, everytime I handed eclipse shades out to anyone. They wanted anything from me they could get their hands on. I actually had them hanging off me as I tried to move away. But with the eclipse now underway, I made my way back to the steps and watched as the light began to disappear.
In the seconds before totality, everyone was standing, and the noise and excitement was rising to a climax. I looked around for shadow bands but couldn’t find any. I looked at the eclipse hoping to see a few Baily’s Beads, but couldn’t see any! The corona seemed to pop into view without any if its usual announcements! But there it was – totality – much to the delight and the shrieks of the gathered faithful. The shadow of the Moon had transformed our remote outpost in rural India into an alien world. The eclipse looked much bigger to me than my other two eclipses, probably because the sun was so low in the sky. Not even forty degrees. You only had to look over to see it, not up. And just as predicted, Jupiter and Venus were adorning this celestial wonder on either side. A true astronomical marvel! But then before I could exhale, it was over. The total eclipse had lasted 59 seconds. But it felt more like 2.
Most animals don’t know what to make of totality. Mostly it upsets their day/night rhythm and they get spooked. We were delayed leaving this site because a cow had decided to sit down on the road during totality and refused to get up again!
With the incredible lift in spirit that comes with seeing a total eclipse, we spent the rest of the afternoon basking in the glorious feeling of being alive, and exploring this fascinating site. Eclipse days are always a peak experience, but even more so in an exotic locale. I never would have visited Fatehpur Sikri without the eclipse and I never would have felt the presence of Sheik Salim Chisti by standing in his tomb. We travelled back to Delhi, on to Singapore, then drove around the island of Bali for a week. When I got home I began the long and nasty 3-year wait to see totality again.