As our 4X4 lurched through mist, slush and sand on what was once the Yamuna, we watched a strange Son et Lumiere play itself out in the distance. The hiss of gushing propane and flicking tongues of cobalt-and-gold flame fronted the performance; the background score was the low whirring of fans.

In the haze and half-light of 6am, we spied shadowy outlines of people: they scurried about—some tugged at ropes, some unloaded strange paraphernalia from pick-ups, and others just stood huddled together. Then, in a dramatic entry, a green monster reared itself up. The happy monster from Missouri was awake, the giant bee from Brazil was ready to buzz and, going by the rate at which the other balloons were popping out of the mist, we’d made it right on time.

Pilots and balloons from 12 countries participated in the first Agra International Balloon Festival (November 14-16), organised by Sky Waltz. With an aerial view of the Taj as the highlight, no one was ready to suffer latecomers. I was pointed to Thomas, the man from Down Under who’d pilot me up above.

After a crash course on basket etiquette—“That will be your corner; let me know if you want to change posi­tions; watch out for the chord, or you’ll end up deflating the balloon mid-air. Are you ready to fly?” I hopped into the basket, raring to feel the world drop away.

As Thomas keept an eye on the GPS— the route was marked so we wouldn’t get too close to the Taj—I watched as the world morphed into a vivid 2-D canvas. I drifted above this oversized oil painting filled with strokes of the brightest blues, pinks and yellows. Everything assumed a form far removed from its own. The Yamuna slithered into the distance, snake-like; a roundabout was a starfish; the houses, Lego blocks. The only thing that retained its scale was a kite that flew in, as if to inquire what we were doing in a no-fly zone. And, of course, the Taj Mahal re­mained the Taj Mahal, as ethereal and beautiful as ever.

While I was taking in all of this scenery, Thomas focussed on steering the balloon away from the power lines and on to an open space on the outskirts of town. The magical experience came to an end in a hop-skip-bump landing. Best of all, there even seemed to be a lesson in all of this. Even hot air, used well, can change one’s perspective of the world.

Propane-fuelled flames and bright colours dispel the darkness at Agra's PAC Ground, where the pros performed a tethered flight
The monster balloon from Missouri was a hit among the onlookers who attended the event at the PAC Ground


The crew runs the final checks in the balloon--s --envelope-- before lift-off
Balloons glide over the Yamuna just as the sun rises
The Taj, burnished by the sunlight caught in the haze
Children race on cycles to get to the landing spot
Auto rickshaws parked in a housing colony


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