TAJ BALLOON FESTIVAL: HAVE YOU SEEN TAJ MAHAL FROM TOP?

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This is how we landed. Clicked immediately after our landing by Baadshah!

img_9261THE BALLOON LANDED WITH A THUD in the middle of nowhere. It first hit the floor, our balloon tips over, rested briefly on the ground, dragged a little and finally stopped. A storm of dust enveloped my face, hair and camera.  I tried to find my balance as I was lying on the wooden basket on ground, my back facing the ground, my legs up in the air. Kind of 90 degrees! My co travelers, who were the next door neighbors a while ago, were now occupying the first floor of the ‘apartment’.  A group of villagers, young, old, kids came rushing to us as the balloon stopped and inflated, like a giant monster destroyed by a superhero. Windy landings are common if the weather is not favourable. It is safe even if the basket tips over. All you need to do is follow the instructions of pilot diligently.

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Local village kids running from one balloon to another in excitement. Adults were excited too but showed restraint.

Richard (from Sri Lanka, in pic below), our pilot said, “I have piloted Hot Air balloon in one of the most exotic locations in the world but I enjoy flying in India the most. The reason is nothing else but the sheer warmth of people and the excitement it builds at the landing place. Every single time!”

I couldn’t agree more with him. The moment we took off from the P.A.C ground in Agra, we were constantly accompanied by a strange cacophimg_9411ony. Nothing like I have heard before. As I looked down from the balloon, I saw small dots waving at us, screaming with joy and abandon. Each one of them was looking up; the kids playing on rooftop of their houses, the ‘ghoonghat’ (veil) clad women on the streets, the shopkeepers and vendors. It was the first balloon ride for all the 6 journalists and bloggers, including me. While we were ecstatic to participate in our first ride ever, the people below were excited just to see us fly.

As we floated lyrically in the air, our happiness found an extension in their happiness. The constant bird’s eye view of the iconic Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world made it memorable; once-in-a-lifetime thing. The early morning ride made it amusing for me to see people start their daily routine viz. women drying clothes, school kids readying for school, shopkeepers opening their shops, a group of unruly monkeys jumping across rooftop boundaries of adjoining homes.

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View of balloon from our balloon!

We covered a distance of 10 kilometres in 17 minutes. Another balloon had landed near our landing spot. It was a scandalous site. The balloon stood tall, its fabric poetically waving in the air. Before it collapsed, it attracted the attention of villagers, young and old alike. Young kids ran from all directions, initiating little dust storms. Senior citizens from the villages showed restraint and yet found it hard to hide their excitement! They looked at the balloon in awe, agape mouthed, cracking jokes and sharing good cheer. I sensed that they would perhaps discuss it all day, maybe even all week. This is how a sleepy village comes to life in India.

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The other balloon which attracted much attention. It landed on a stage like hillock making it all the more dramatic.

It was one of the most memorable mornings of my life. I value it even more because I was unable to fly the previous morning. Owing to bad weather (strong winds), I was supposed to be in one of the 5 balloon rides which were cancelled out of 15. Our lady pilot from Malaysia apologized for cancelling the ride. “I am sorry, I shouldn’t be flying today. The winds are too strong. It is my first time in India and I can’t take the risk. You can still hop in the balloon and take selfies though.” Me and my co traveler, were disappointed but understood that it’s better not to fly than to risk it all. Never mind, the sumptuous breakfast (delicious South Indian) at The Grand Imperial was still waiting for us.

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The view of Taj from our Balloon!

I was supposed to leave Agra the same day but I extended my trip for one more day, to give it a shot the next day! I decided to relax the entire day at my comfortable room in Samovar hotel Agra, sometimes sleeping, sometimes gazing at the Taj Mahal from my room. I just happened to get lucky the next day despite the warnings of strong winds again!

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The bird’s eye view of Taj was clear this time, unlike a hazy one during 1st edition in 2015.

My extended stay was a blessing in disguise as I got an opportunity to be witness to the special Night Glow Show of hot air balloons dancing to the tunes of western music. In this event, all the 15 balloons were tethered to the ground and visitors were given a taste of what the real ride would be like. The constant firing gave it a dramatic look especially to those balloons shaped like a cartoon character, Smurf being the most popular one.

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Ballons shaped like cartoon characters ruled!

Kudos to the Uttar Pradesh government for coming up with such initiative. Despite such diverse landscapes and important sites, a Hot Air Balloon scene is conspicuously missing in India. Thanks to companies like E factor and Sky waltz, one can have such experiences in places like Jaipur, Agra etc. Samit Garg, the CEO of E factor told us, “I had a memorable Hot Air Balloon experience in Germany. I wondered why it is not happening in India. So, I decided to introduce it in some destinations in India with much success. Taj Hot Air Balloon festival is a seasonal event and we hope to make it a permanent activity, increasing the present count of 15 to 100 in coming years. We have already grown from 3 days event last year to a six day event this year.”

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Night Glow event!

Tushar, the energetic marketing personnel from E factor told us, “It is a safe activity. Indians now get a chance to explore the world class aviation and adventure sport right in their backyard. It’s really rare that anything goes wrong up in the air. In our history, we have not had any such issues. The visibility is much better this time. Last year, due to smog the view of Taj Mahal from top was cloudy.”  E-factor Adventure Tourism  Pvt. Ltd. runs commercial hot air ballooning flights in India. It promotes and hosts Hot Air Ballooning events in other destinations too.

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Smurf clearly walked away (or is it flew away) with all the attention!

Accomplished pilots from India and countries like Malaysia (female pilot), Sri Lanka (Richard, our pilot), USA, UK, UAE, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Netherland, Switzerland, Belgium helped make the dream come true for many.

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO OF THE FESTIVAL. CLICK HERE

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Our Malaysian Pilot on day 1. It was her first time in India.

YOU CAN DO IT TOO:

If you are lucky, you might end up winning a lucky draw and do the ride for free. Those interested may submit a form to the tourism office. A lucky draw will be held each evening based upon which winners will be finalized. There is a fixed quota for domestic and international tourists.

When to go: The second edition of Annual Taj Balloon Festival is a 6 day event commencing from 25th November and ends at 30th November. If you missed this year, do give it a try next year!

How to reach: make a 3 to 4 hour long road trip/train ride from Delhi. Agra has an airport. Feel free to book it via Sky Scanner.

One can fly to Delhi and make a trip to Agra or fly to Agra Airport.

When: The 2nd edition is from 25th Novmber to 30th November. In case you miss this event, keep an eye for the dates on UP Tourism website for next year, mostly in November.

Where to Stay: Samovar Hotel is comfortable, luxurious and in cenimg_9221tral location. The meals (I sampled Veg Burger and Stuffed Parathas) are good. There were some issues in TV which was sorted immediately by the maintenance person. Best part: You get view of Taj Mahal all day from your (soul) window. I often lazed around eating and gazing at the Taj from the comfort of the room.  Much like how Shah Jahan must have longingly stared at Taj Mahal when he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Red Fort. If only Shah Jahan had an option to view Taj from top. I stayed in room number 412.

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This is where we took off from. I clicked this from my balloon up in the air.

Moral Policing:

  • In case your ride is cancelled, please do not argue with the organizers and nag them for a ride. Safety is most important and the weather condition is in nobody’s hand!
  • If you have taken a ride already, don’t ask for another one. There are people waiting for same since the number of people who can ride is limited. This year it was just 400 people.
  • Strictly follow the instructions of your pilot. If he says keep the camera in your bag and sit on the floor of basket, then do it. It is for your own safety.
  • Don’t bend from the basket when it is up in the air.
  • Don’t walk over the deflated balloon. Some of them cost more than Rs. 90 lakhs.
  • Don’t demand a flight over the Taj. No flights are allowed till a certain distance from Taj.
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It was heartening to see locals help trained pilots with packing of balloon. Deflating it is much harder than your think! And they did it 2 times in a day!

The view from my #SoulWindow makes me speechless!

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Bird’s eye view of Taj from the Hot Air balloon. Clicked using an 18-135 mm lens

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A local amused by the unexpected landing!

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Pool Side buffet at Grand Imperial Hotel, Agra. Loved their South Indian fare.
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Locals gathered near our balloon as soon as we landed near the village.

Pink Tea,Samovar and other secrets – In Search of vegetarian food in Lucknow during Ramadan

I have spent my growing up years in Lucknow (Well 1998 to 2008) and after moving to Mumbai and then Delhi, I keep coming back to meet parents. But never had I explored the Ramadaan special food walks in the old city area. Perhaps, the vegetarian in me stopped me. This year I decided to explore the vegetarian delight during the month long festival.

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Scene from Abdul Aziz Road, Lucknow

My photo researcher/photographer friend, Sneha Srivastava agreed to join me.  She is on a sabbatical in Lucknow (and spends her time playing with her dog, attending mundane ‘mundan’ parties and other small joys in life.) We roamed around the lanes of very chaotic Akbari Gate. I was curious to locate an ancient gate when a vendor directed me to a narrow lane, the kind where two fat men can’t walk together. I was intrigued to find a dilapidated gate sandwiched by a mix of nondescript buildings.

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Sheermal being cooked in an underground oven. Look closely!

 

As we explored more lanes around the place, around 7:04 p.m., people in almost all the shops, sat around a buffet of home cooked food, performing their prayers and breaking the fast. A friendly person asked us to join them for the feast in a garments shop. I hesitantly agreed, suspecting the food to be a mix of vegetarian and non vegetarian fare. I was surprised when the gentleman told me that each item of the feast was ‘pure vegetarian’. Apparently, in Indian homes, in most Roza Iftaaris, the major chunk of food served is vegetarian.

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They invited us for the Iftar Party. Read text for the full story!

I wasn’t really observing Roza but I was more than happy to join them for iftari. Iftar means the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan. They shared their black chanas (chickpeas), dates, pakoras (fritters) , desserts, cut fruits and ‘sherbet’ with me. Food was nothing to write home about. It was what you get in home but what made it special was the love and affection with which it was served to us.

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Sewai galore in Old Lucknow.

When two burqa clad women who were passing by, asked them for water, they invited them to join. Within minutes, a cheerful friend of them joined them and spread the festive cheer with his upbeat mood. I understood in that moment, that this ritual is not only about self control,self restraint, sacrifice but also about bonding, bonhomie and sharing. As they sipped water from the old fashioned ‘katora’ (bowl), I thanked them for their hospitality and moved on.

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Even drinking water is prohibited during Roza. Our host breaking his fast by drinking water from a traditional ‘katora’

Near Akbari gate is the famous shop called Al Madina Lassi and Kashmiri Chai. The shop is mostly known for the meticulously made Kashmiri Noon Chai. It is run by 3 brothers, Munna, Wahid and Latif Munna gave me a lowdown on the process. He told me that the preparations start since morning.

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People come from afar from that one cup of Kashmiri pink tea. This tea is not a secret to the locals.

It was surprising for me to know that the Pink tea was made with the regular green tea. But the process was more meticulous. The shopkeeper, said ruefully (but also with a hint of pride), “It takes a lot of time to make this tea.” It tastes even better in winters, I was told. It also helps one keep warm in winter. Tea leaves are boiled in water for one hour or more along with baking soda. Once the tea leaves release dark color, it is boiled for four hours alongwith dried rose petals, dalchini (cinnamon), tejpatta (Bay Leaf), Kesar aka Jaffran (saffron), Ilaichi (Cardamom), laung (cloves) and khada namak (salt), milk, crushed almonds, sugar et al. The samovar (mostly made up of copper) adds to its distinct taste. It is then dispensed from the Samovar directly, everytime an order comes. You can also taste the delicious Kesariya kheer and lassi here.

 

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Kesariya Kheer at Al Madeena

On seeing our interest (and perhaps ‘peeled eyes’ expressions), an enthusiastic Daaud from a nearby shop invited us to sample dishes from his roadside shop. His brother Mohammed Sabir sells Kashmiri tea and desserts on his hand pulled cart. He showed us how to set up the Samovar. The Samovar has a lid which when opened, reveals a metal pipe which runs through the entire pot. The pipe is filled with burning coal/charcoals. They settle at the base on a metal web. The metal web is constantly fuelled by mild fire though an opening at the base. This helps keep the tea warm. A modern day thermos flask could have done the same job more easily and efficiently but I think some things should just be done the old way.

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Dawood with his ‘besan ki roti’

Apart from Middle east and some parts of Europe, the samovar is also quite popular in Russia. In fact these originated in Russia. They come in many beautifully crafted designs and shapes. Some people collect antique versions for the prized beauty. It also has a chimney for the smoke to escape. When not using it to keep tea warm, people use it to boil water for daily use, using anything from coal to pine cones.  In many cultures, samovars are used during community feasts and festivals.

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Kashmiri pink tea at Al Madeena

Also pronounced as Samaavar, Daood pronounced it as Samovar which is actually the Persian way of saying it. The samovar we saw was a Kashmiri version and was made up of copper. It was embellished with calligraphic motifs. I spotted floral designs. This work is known as ‘naqash’ Few days after my visit to Lucknow, I attended an Iranian film festival and observed that samovar was featured in many Iranian films as an important routine of everyday life. In fact, the event also had a desk with a display of Iranian style copper Samovar and cups.

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A beautiful copper Samovar at Dawood’s shop!

Kashmiri Noon Chai (It has a hint of salt) is also known as Pink Tea, Gulaabi chai (Pink in color) or Sheer Chai. It is though not as salty as the Butter Tea you get in Buddhist regions. It is neither as crisp as the kahwa, the other Kashmiri Chai.  It is best consumed with breads like Lavasa, Sheermaal, Taftan Samosa, Balaai, Kulcha etc and is a part of daily routine in Kashmir and now some parts of Lucknow. The pink color is achieved by adding baking soda to it. Migrants from Kashmir brought this special tea with them to Lucknow. Today you can find this drink easily in the streets of Old Lucknow. The credit of popularizing it goes to Ameer Ahmad. He started selling it in 1962 on the streets of Lucknow on the suggestion of his mother. He dealt in the business of oil lamp prior to that. Ameer Started running a shop at Abdul Aziz road (Akbari gate). His son Rasheed Ahmad took over the legacy from him. Today’s Rasheed’s sons Waheed Ahmad and Munna (Moin Ahmad) and Lateef run the shop.

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It’s rush hour at Al Madeena. On the left is Samovar!

Though the Kashmiri tea costed me just Rs.10, a very interesting variation of the same came at a higher price. At Rs.40 a cup, Chai, samosa, malai ka pyala was nothing like what I have tasted before. Khari like puff pastry  is crushed roughly and placed in a bowl. Then, it is topped with pink Kashmiri tea and thick malai (cream).  It is quite filling and is meant to be savored leisurely as the crunchy puff pastry turns its texture into chewy.

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Pics above : Chai, samosa, malai ka pyala

Coming back to Dawood’s shop, the Shahi Tukda was passable (Though still worth a try) kheer was sure a winner. It was thick, creamy and had khoya, zaafran (Saffron), milk, dry fruits and rice in it. Rice is added whole and crushed during the cooking. It sure left me begging for more but I had to stop since Dawood bhai insisted that he won’t charge us a penny in spite of our protests. (Ah, the perks of a travel writer and sweet Lucknow people!) He also runs a shop where he sells only ‘besan ki roti’. It is shallow fried gramflour bread and is served with two spicy chutneys (Tomato and Chilly). Till the time I was there, I did not see the shopkeepers free for even a second. The rotis just flew off the tawa as the crowd gathered the cart. At Rs. 10 a piece, its great VFM.

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Shahi Tukda at Dawood’s shop. They could not beat my mom’s recipe!

Who knew the under rated city of Lucknow hides so many gems under its sleeve? A sequel of unique vegetarian dishes to eat in Lucknow is coming soon on the blog. Stay tuned.

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Your parents can’t go to Old Lucknow? Never mind, pack some for them. Like I did!

FIND THEM:

Al Madina Lassi And Kashmiri Chai : Abdul Aziz Road, Akbari Road Slope, Lucknow. Phone Waheed (9336166805), Munna (7068568426)

Dawood (For besan ki Roti, Pink Tea and Sweets) – Akbari Gate Slope, In Front of Umar Plaza, Lucknow. Phone – 9044140846

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‘Besan Ki Roti’ sold like hot cakes. They just flew off the huge griddle!

 

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Dawood’s shop and the samovar

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Special thanks to Sneha Srivastava, a fab photographer and photo researcher for accompanying me
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Sewai paradise!