Varanasi Balloon Festival: a Pilgrimage in the Sky

Varanasi, a city of many shades, will soon be a destination for an annual hot air balloon festival
A boatman looks at the hot air balloons in the sky in Varanasi
A boatman looks at the hot air balloons in the sky in Varanasi

On a hazy winter morning, as usual, the residents of Varanasi slowly wake up to the Gayatri Mantra of the Sun over the timeless ghats by the holy Ganga. They notice that the sky over the neighbourhood of the Hanuman temple in Domari is dotted with colourful floating objects. The vast horizon is resplendent with blue, red and pink balloons, carrying visitors from across the country who have arrived to observe the ancient city sleepily welcoming a new day. 

People wave excitedly at the balloons floating over their houses and streets. A few take pictures on their smartphones. As for the riders, it is an experience of a lifetime to regale family and friends with, about floating in the wind at an approximate height of 1,000 ft. The bespectacled 11-year-old Delhi boy, Advait Gupta, is ecstatic about his hour-long aerial passage over the city of salvation. He is accompanied by a young cousin, aunt and grandfather. The boys compete with one another to identify the landmarks. “Look that’s the Kashi Vishwanath Temple,” Advait cries out, even as Charles, their Polish pilot, navigates the balloon over the temple.

Varanasi Balloon Festival is the three-day inaugural hot air balloon festival with 11 balloons and close to 200 passengers. Our balloon’s basket, bearing eight passengers, hover over green and brown fields. “It’s my second ride in two days. I can now identify most major landmarks,” remarks Advait, our self-appointed guide for the journey, as he picks out a crowded ghat. It is a day where the wind and the sun have decided to be kind. “The balloons move only the way the wind blows. Fortunately today the ride is smooth,” laughs Charles. The previous day, a balloon had brushed past a tree, after the wind turned rogue.

Samit Garg, the founder of E-factor and Skywaltz Safari, the company that organised the festival, wants Varanasi to offer more than heritage and handlooms. “It’s a cult destination amongst many old-world flaneurs. It’s a seat of scholarly wisdom. We decided to introduce some premium items to turn this pilgrimage spot into a high-value destination. Watching the temple town unfold in the morning’s glory and the human expanse covering the ghats gives a perspective unlike any other in the world,” he says. Charles, who is preparing for the descent, asks his flyers to squat on the basket floor to avoid injuries as the balloon hits the ground.

He operates its burner twice, letting out a big whoosh of flame, which heats up the air inside. We safely land in an open field. The ground crew is ready to hold the wicker basket steady so that we can disembark. A bunch of urchins appear from nowhere and rushes to the stationary balloon, now shrinking in size. “I never imagined Varanasi to be so green,” says Nandini Gupta, an architect from Delhi. “The aerial view was meditative. Maybe because we were in Benaras,” adds her father. 

It looks as if the holy city is reaching for the heavens to go beyond just a site for a dip and become one where you are with the wind. 

Dates to be announced soon.  

Gone with the wind:

1. Popular hot air balloon destinations are Goa, Araku (Andhra Pradesh), Pushkar, Manali, Agra, Lonavala.

2. Cost varies between Rs 5,000 and Rs 15,000

3. The flight duration ranges from 15 minutes to an hour

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