The early morning horizon is dotted with vibrant balloons as you float mid-air. Time seems to stand still as from the haze emerges one of the most breathtaking sights in the world, the Taj Mahal. I witnessed this mesmerising view at the Taj Balloon Festival, which took place in Agra from 14-18 November.
It was the second day of the festival and I was excited about embarking on my first hot-air balloon ride. At 5am, we were at Hathi Ghat on the banks of the Yamuna. Giant balloons were being blown up, flames hissing away and casting an orange glow on our eager faces. The balloons were vibrant, wacky and strikingly beautiful!
I was assigned a balloon in the shape of a bumble bee! But that was not the only cool shape or colour -- there was an alien balloon, a monster balloon (with its tongue sticking out) and your classic multicolour balloon too. All of them looked absolutely grand.
The festival, organised by UP Tourism in conjunction with Sky Waltz, hosted 15 teams from countries such as Britain, Spain, Australia, Brazil and France. These pilots have flown all over the world, some over iconic spots like Mount Kilimanjaro or the Egyptian Pyramids and yet their excitement for the Taj was palpable.
As our "bee" lifted off the ground, my pilot Francisco Naccarato and I let out a loud cheer! The prospect of seeing the Taj Mahal from the skies above had us as excited as children. It was surreal -- floating around, with 14 other balloons dancing to the tune of the winds.
"Woohooo!" I screamed to other balloons as they waved back. As the orange of the rising sun peeked out of the horizon, the balloons spread out, making their own tracks.
Francisco hastily manipulated the gush of the flame. Each time the searing fire blew hot air in the balloon, we would rise to the left, and every time we descended a bit, it was to the right. "All the play of wind," winked Francisco!
The morning haze was thick, but we hovered. And soon enough, the silhouette we had been waiting for emerged against the rising sun. It was a breathtaking sight -- the Taj Mahal wearing a shroud of white, the marble glowing with the touch of the early morning rays. We were delighted. Only a few others had the fortune to see the Taj because the haze had been too thick.
This is the first time anyone has flown this close to the Taj as this area is usually a no-fly zone -- the organisers took special permissions for the festival. Samit Garg, founder-director of Sky Waltz says that it took close to three years of coordination and permissions to make the Taj Balloon festival a reality. The reaction, he says, has been phenomenal -- the administration and the locals love the gliding balloons over their city.
And I can vouch for that! Men and women, children and uniformed personnel, all smiled ear to ear as the balloons descended close to the homes and streets. Mobile cameras in one hand and the other waving, the people in Agra walked around with the heads turned upwards for the duration of the festival. The rides are usually 45 minutes to an hour and Francisco landed at the golf course -- beautiful and smooth!
As the evening approached the balloons transformed into twinkling lanterns. This was the Night Glow concert, where the pilots moved the balloons to the music, leaving the city with images that it is likely to cherish forever.
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