TAREGNA, India - Scientists, students and nature enthusiasts prepared Tuesday for the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century, while millions planned to shutter themselves indoors, giving in to superstitious myths about the phenomenon.

The eclipse will first be sighted at dawn Wednesday in India's Gulf of Khambhat, just north of the metropolis of Mumbai, before being seen in a broad swath moving north and east to Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China.

The eclipse - visible only in Asia - will reach its peak in India at about 6:20 a.m. local time (0050 GMT), and will last 6 minutes and 39 seconds at its maximum point.

It is the longest such eclipse since July 11, 1991, when a total eclipse lasting 6 minutes, 53 seconds was visible from Hawaii to South America. There will not be a longer eclipse than Wednesday's until 2132.

Wednesday's eclipse will be seen for 3 minutes and 48 seconds in the Indian village of Taregna, where scientists say residents will have the clearest view.

Over the past week, this village has been swamped by researchers who will study scientific phenomena ranging from the behaviour of birds and other animals to atmospheric changes affected by the eclipse.

Hotels in Patna were fully booked while taxis raised their rates - sensing a brief opportunity in the sudden interest in the village.

Scientists set up telescopes and other equipment in Taregna a day in advance to make the most of the window of opportunity provided by the eclipse.

"We are hoping to make some valuable observations on the formation of asteroids around the sun," Pankaj Bhama, a scientist with India's Science Popularization Association of Communicators and Educators, said Tuesday.

A 10-member team of scientists from the premier Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore and the Indian air force will be flying and filming the eclipse as it becomes visible in different parts of the country, an air force press release said.

Thousands of people lined up outside a planetarium in Patna on Tuesday to buy solar viewing goggles. The goggles, costing 20 rupees (40 cents), are supposed to act as filters and allow people to look at the sun without damaging their eyes.

But millions across India were shunning the sight and planned to stay indoors, gripped by fearful myths.

Across India, even in regions where the eclipse was not visible, pregnant women were advised to stay indoors in curtained rooms over a belief that the sun's invisible rays would harm the fetus and the baby would be born with disfigurations, birthmarks or a congenital defect.

Krati Jain, a software professional in New Delhi, said she planned to take a day off from work Wednesday to avoid what she called "any ill effects of the eclipse on my baby."

"My mother and aunts have called and told me stay in a darkened room with the curtains closed, lie in bed and chant prayers," said Jain, 24, who is expecting her first child.

In the northern Indian state of Punjab, authorities ordered schools to begin an hour late to prevent children from venturing out and gazing at the sun.

Others saw a business opportunity: one travel agency in India scheduled a charter flight to watch the eclipse by air, with seats facing the sun selling at a premium.

Additional police and paramilitary troops were posted around Patna and Taregna after Maoist rebels called for a strike Wednesday to protest increases in the price of gas and other essentials.

The rebels, who say they are inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, often target police and government workers.

"Adequate numbers of forces have been deployed at Taregna where top scientists and researchers are gathering to view the celestial wonder," said R. Mallar Vizhi, a senior superintendent of police in Patna.


On the Net:

Eclipses Online: http://www.eclipse.org.uk/

Mr. Eclipse: http://mreclipse.com/