Starry, Starry Night …..

Starry, Starry Night ….. Paint your palette blue and grey……

I look up into the sky and watch millions of stars twinkling in the dark black sky of the universe. It is a perfectly clear night with no clouds and the moon is just emerging. I feel I am in a planetarium, but – no! I remind myself I am out in the open and this is the real thing ! The feeling of timelessness and space that I get as I watch the myriads of stars out there in the universe only make me feel insignificant and small.

I am told that there are 500 thousand million stars in our Milky way! Zeros scare me ! I am terrible with calculations. I can never remember how many zeros there are in a million or a billion and then how do I figure how many zeros there are in 500 thousand million stars which just comprise our milky way and I am told there are thousands of similar galaxies as is our Milky way! Indians feel that the rest of the world is always indebted to India – after all ancient Indian scholars from the 5th–2nd century BC gave the world the ZERO but what we do without a calculator ?

Ancient Indian scriptures describe ‘Indra’ as being the God of the Universe He is the king of the gods and ruler of the heavens ( mainly in this case the Indian heavens). If the Universe is personified as a God – Indra then other elements such as the planets, fire, water, sun, thunder and rain also need to be personified. Each of them are under the command of Indra who commands them in war against the demons. Mythology gives us the consequence of these great wars – the eternal and universal war of good against evil! So we in India revere the planets and elements in the universe and give them names and worship them. Our myths are about how they interact , fight and love each other. The interplay of these mighty cosmos giants change the course of us earthlings. They fight and there is destruction, famine, drought or floods on Mother Earth, they love and share their bounty with us and there is plenty !

I remember many years ago, maybe it was in the late seventies, I am not sure of the exact year but we were informed by the Indian Meteorological Institutes in India that we would witness a total solar eclipse for a few minutes. We were told the day and time this would happen and were also informed of certain regions in the country where the viewing of the total eclipse would be maximum. As seen from the Earth, a solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, and the Moon fully or partially blocks the Sun. This can happen only at new moon, when the Sun and the Moon are in conjunction as seen from Earth in an alignment referred to as ‘syzygy’. The disk of the Sun would be fully obscured by the Moon in full day light. Which meant that for a few minutes there would be almost complete darkness in the middle of the day!

Translated into Indian mythology it would be equivalent to the conquest of the mighty Sun God by the smaller and less powerful moon god even for a few moments ! Though the eclipse was a natural phenomenon, the effect of it could be easily attributed to supernatural causes or regarded as a bad omen or even the start of destruction of Mother earth! For anyone who had not been forewarned of its effect a total solar eclipse could be frightening.

I travelled with a group of college friends about 150 miles from my home to see the Total eclipse. People like us who travelled to remote locations to observe or witness predicted central solar eclipses were known as eclipse chasers or umbraphiles .We were told not to look directly at the photosphere of the Sun (the bright disk of the Sun itself), even for just a few seconds, as this could cause permanent damage to the retina of the eye. This was because of the intense visible and invisible radiation that the photosphere emitted. This damage can result in impairment of vision, up to and including blindness. The retina has no sensitivity to pain, and the effects of retinal damage may not appear for hours, so there is no warning that injury is occurring. We went armed to our expedition with special sunglasses to be used when we gazed up.

Look out on a summer’s day…..With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.

We were a little late to reach the suggested spot before the appointed time. We were just about 30 miles away and suddenly even before we looked at our watches we could feel the changes happening outside. From the road we noticed a small lake and a small grass thatched hut. We got out of the car and rushed inside the hut. My friends wanted to record the phases of total eclipse. It was about 3 pm in the afternoon and suddenly the sky became dark. A strong breeze gushed around us and we could see the dead leaves and dust swirl around us. Suddenly there was pin drop silence you could not hear a single bird. It was like an unseen force had unplugged Mother Earth we saw darkness cast on us we saw the shadow spread on the lake. The little animals did not understand what was happening – for them it had become night in the middle of the day ! The birds flew into the large trees to find shelter and wind and dust, the dogs stopped barking. We waited in silence for those few minutes which seemed an eternity. There was a doubt created in our minds, – should we appeal to the Sun God and ask him to vanquish the Moon God that had blocked the sun’s bounty from reaching us? Should we pray to the Moon God to spare mother earth and move away. Was the brightness of our souls being blackened by darkness from within?

Suddenly the darkness lifted and you could see the shadow recede from the lake. Light infused the atmosphere, we were happy to see the happy face of the sun. What joy – the earth was once again plugged in once again . The crows started screeching the hens, sparrows and little birds were chirping loudly! The dogs were barking and the village chatter started once again! The mid day darkness had receded,

They would not listen, they’re not listening still……Perhaps they never will…

( stanza from Vincent by Don Mclean)

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