Sun eat

It was the longest eclipse in over 160 years, swooping across India and China to end up at 6 minutes somewhere over the Pacific. A once-in-a-lifetime event, and a terribly bad omen. Our landlady chattered excitedly in Sichuanese while waving a Tibetan astronomy book up and down. She was 42 and had never seen a total eclipse in her lifetime. Today was the day.

But it was a grey day, and as we trudged uphill at 7am, our lungs heaved in the thin air. Cold and cloudy. I shivered in my Hong Kong shorts and flipflops. When we reached the top, the village of Tagong stretched below us, with its four glinten-roofed monasteries, and an amazing collection of mountains in the background. This is the edge of the plains. Of nomads and yaks and tents, and of wild western Tibetans with long hair and hats and gold teeth and huge gleaming motorbikes.

We were woefully underprepared in terms of eclipse gear, but the cloud meant it was fine to look with sunglasses. We had barely got to the hilltop with its hundreds-and-thousands-sprinkled prayer flags, when the first chunk was “eaten” from the sun. That’s how they say it in Chinese, it’s a “sun eat” (ri shi). We stood there, closer to the heavens than most in the world, and stared as some greedy invisible monster in the clouds continued to munch away, the cold intensified into our marrow, and the light flickered and darkened like a storm.

And suddenly the most tremendous howling split the heavens. It seemed that every creased valley, every hole in the rock echoed with a crazed hoop and a wail, a bone-chilling song which rose and rose and made minds tremble like small animals. There were dog barks too, but mostly it was people. People screaming from the land below. Out of sight, but shouting and praying, praying for the demons to be gone, and to protect the sun, the giver of life, our eternity.

Sudden silence. A silence that blew through like an eery wind. The sun became a part-moon became a slither became a tip of fingernail, and a black shadow galloped across the land and swallowed it up. Midnight at 9.09. Freezing, maddening darkness which above anything else was utterly silent. We squinted into the clouds for a glimpse of fiery ring like in the pictures, but there was nothing. The sun had been completely swallowed. Perhaps the world and time and everything else had ended, our howling companions vanished into eternity.

We waited and froze, paced up and down rubbing our hands unnaturally. Nothingness ticked onwards. Conversation began and seemed strangely out of place, like chatting about train times during an Easter service. Squinted into the heavens but they gave away nothing. Waited, waiting. And then, there was something – a single piercing beam of light, it forced itself open, powering down from above, splitting the black heavens into two. Dawn rose for the second time that day, from the middle of the sky, it grew and grew, and grew. And there was the most tremendous noise.


From Tagong below and every other settlement in the vicinity, fireworks banged and crackered and rent and shattered and burst into the air, shaking buildings and hills. Delighted screams, more crackles and bangs, a sky of light. The sun is back, life is back, the demons have been vanquished, we have survived! We have survived we have survived we have survived. Let’s celebrate for us and for our children! And quick, today a living Buddha is coming to Ta Gong – the highest rank of all the lamas. What is a high rank? Like your professors! He is a professor of our buddhism, he is of the type of the highest and the goodest. He will be coming to the monastery surrounded by monks and cars and crazed animals and wild horses, coming specially from Tibet, coming with the sun and the light and the life that is returning. And you should come too!

Alright, why not.


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