The Taj Balloon Festival

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“Did you know that balloons are the second most photographed object after celebrities?” asked Samit Garg, Founder Director – E Factor & SkyWaltz (Events & Hot Air Ballooning). To be honest I did not know that but when I arrived for the 2nd Taj Balloon Festival (held in Agra between November 25 – 30, 2016), I understood exactly why. It was evening as I headed to the PAC Grounds, one of the venues where the balloons took off from and I am amazed at the sheer size of the balloons. The field was abuzz with activity and the balloons were so colourful that everyone on the ground seemed trigger happy clicking pictures on their smart phones and cameras. Naturally, I saw a slew of selfies being taken too! This effort was a part of the Uttar Pradesh Government Tourism department’s initiative to develop new attractions and events at Agra. Organised by Sky Waltz in association with UP Tourism, this event is aimed to boost leisure and adventure tourism and aviation based entertainment in the state. The evening program had tethered flights, where the balloons rose a few meters high just to give people a feel of how they work and get up close with them. In fact this was a great place to interact with the pilots and also see how the balloons fly.

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The Festival

This year’s event saw 15 hot air balloons from 12 countries like the USA, UK, Spain, Germany, UAE, Canada, Netherland, Turkey, Switzerland, Belgium, Poland, and Malaysia and is being done on a larger scale than last year. The 6 day event saw three special shape balloons showing the characters Happy Egg, Bob the Lobster and Smurf. According to Amrit Abhijat, Secretary/ Director General, Tourism, UP, “Uttar Pradesh is the unique state that provides various adventure sport related activities to tourists. We are introducing hot air ballooning as the latest aviation and adventure sport for the discerning tourists. This festival is the first step towards creating a world class ballooning centre in the state of Uttar Pradesh.” The idea of organizing this festival is to do more around the iconic Taj Mahal that makes this an exhilarating and unique experience. And as Samit says, “even Shah Jahan did not see the Taj Mahal, like you can see it from a hot air balloon.” Regarded as one of the safest form of aviation sport, hot air ballooning has been gaining prominence across the world. The basic concept of how a hot air balloon works is that warmer air rises in cooler air as hot air is lighter than cool air having less mass per unit of volume. The air trapped inside the balloon is heated up by a burner which makes it less dense than the air outside.

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The Ride

You have seen the Taj by day and probably by night too. This is the monument that has unique characteristic of changing its colour and feel at different times of the day, but I think an aerial view of the Taj is something else. And to think the winds nearly played spoilsport – as the balloons do not fly in windy conditions, we were fortunate to get to fly. The flights happen early in the morning and you need to be up by 5:00 a.m. and reach the venue with a boarding pass (yes, you read that right) and wait for the pilot to decide the best location for takeoff. There are mini trucks that hold the equipment that queue up the venue and the process of setting up the balloon is fascinating. A few small helium balloons are released first to check the wind direction and then decide the trajectory of the flight. The location at the PAC grounds ensured that all the sites were outside the 500-meter heritage periphery as mandated by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).  Our pilot Richard who has been flying for 7 years, flies for 6 months in France and for 6 months in India was from Sri Lanka and made it clear that the windy conditions meant that we would have to be ready for a bumpy landing and dragging for a few meters on land would be normal. He also gave clear instructions on how we had to put away all our cameras and duck down when instructed prior to landing. We had a total of 7 people on our flight and the balloon took off quite seamlessly. The balloon rose 700 feet in the air and glided higher we could spot the Taj Mahal as well as the heritage city of Agra against the rising sun that made for a stunning visual spectacle. Luckily for us, the visibility was great and the winds were varying between 90 degrees to 140 degrees. And if you have a fear of heights, you can safely do ballooning, as Richard told us that there is no sense of vertigo and that is the beauty of ballooning. The best part was that when our flight landed and it was not half as bad as what we had prepared ourselves for, the entire village had run up to the balloon and were admiring it with wide eyed awe. It was an amazing experience and as Richard said, this is why he loves flying in India. I could not agree more and certainly this is an experience that must be checked out. “We are looking at having 22-25 balloons next year and in the next 5-7 years, go up to 100 balloons,” says Samit. So here is raising a toast to that and wishing you a high flying experience sooner than later.

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This story has appeared in the Jan 2017 issue of Spice Route magazine: Adventure- Balooning

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