MUMBAI (AFP) – Indian astrologers are predicting violence and turmoil across the world as a result of this week's total solar eclipse, which the superstitious and religious view as a sign of potential doom.
But astronomers, scientists and secularists are trying to play down claims of evil portent in connection with Wednesday's natural spectacle, when the moon will come between the Earth and the sun, completely obscuring the sun.
In Hindu mythology, the two demons Rahu and Ketu are said to "swallow" the sun during eclipses, snuffing out its life-giving light and causing food to become inedible and water undrinkable.
Pregnant women are advised to stay indoors to prevent their babies developing birth defects, while prayers, fasting and ritual bathing, particularly in holy rivers, are encouraged.
Shivani Sachdev Gour, a gynaecologist at the Fortis Hospital in New Delhi, said a number of expectant mothers scheduled for caesarian deliveries on July 22 had asked to change the date.
"This is a belief deeply rooted in Indian society. Couples are willing to do anything to ensure that the baby is not born on that day," Gour said.
Astrologers have predicted a rise in communal and regional violence in the days following the eclipse, particularly in India, China and other Southeast Asian nations where it can be seen on Wednesday morning.
Mumbai astrologer Raj Kumar Sharma predicted "some sort of attack by (Kashmiri separatists) Jaish-e-Mohammad or Al-Qaeda on Indian soil" and a devastating natural disaster in Southeast Asia.
An Indian political leader could be killed, he said, and tension between the West and Iran is likely to increase, escalating into possible US military action after September 9, when fiery Saturn moves from Leo into Virgo.
"The last 200 years, whenever Saturn has gone into Virgo there has been either a world war or a mini world war," he told AFP.
It is not just in India that some are uneasy about what will transpire because of the eclipse.
In ancient China they were often associated with disasters, the death of an emperor or other dark events, and similar superstitions persist.
"The probability for unrest or war to take place in years when a solar eclipse happens is 95 percent," announced an article that attracted a lot of hits on the popular Chinese web portal Baidu.com.
Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, dismissed such doomsday predictions.
"Primarily, what we see with all these soothsayers and astrologers is that they're looking for opportunities to enhance their business with predictions of danger and calamity," he told AFP.
"They have been very powerful in India but over the last decade they have been in systematic decline."
Astronomers and scientists are also working to educate the public about the eclipse.
Travel firm Cox and Kings has chartered a Boeing 737-700 aircraft to give people the chance to see the eclipse from 41,000 feet (12,500 metres).
Experts will be on board to explain it to passengers, some of whom have paid 79,000 rupees (1,600 dollars) for a "sun-side" seat on the three-hour flight from New Delhi.
The eclipse's shadow is expected to pass over the aircraft at 15 times the speed of sound (Mach 15), said Ajay Talwar, president of the SPACE Group of companies that promotes science and astronomy.
"It's coming in the middle of the monsoon season. On the ground, there's a 40 percent chance of seeing it in India. On the aircraft you have almost a 90 percent chance of seeing the eclipse," he added.
Siva Prasad Tata, who runs the Astro Jyoti website, straddles the two worlds.
"There's no need to get too alarmed about the eclipse, they are a natural phenomenon," the astrologer told AFP.
But he added: "During the period of the eclipse, the opposite attracting forces are very, very powerful. From a spiritual point of view, this is a wonderful time to do any type of worship.
"It will bring about good results, much more than on an ordinary day."