Hot air balloons mirror the domes of ancient architecture.
Sand shifts around in the dry wind, while a man in a colorful turban guides his herd of camels past a building topped with minarets. Meanwhile, under a shady tree, a cow naps undisturbed. Pushkar, in Rajasthan, is one of the oldest cities in India – but if you happen to look to the skies here at a certain time of year, you may spot a more recent phenomenon overhead.
A rainbow-colored hot air balloon with a hill fort as a backdrop
Pushkar is known for its livestock and camel fair, held here every year and drawing thousands of people to the banks of Pushkar Lake. However, another festival is now attracting visitors to this part of Rajasthan – a festival a lot less earthbound than its long-running counterpart. This is the Pushkar International Balloon Festival.
Floating above the sprawling cityscape
These large, graceful balloons soaring over the historical forts of Rajasthan provide a marked contrast to the rest of the landscape, yet at the same time they seem to complement the scenery. Then again, hot air balloons are the oldest flying technology we have; the first manned flight took place back in the late 18th century.
Balloons reflected in the mirror-like waters of the lake
Hot air ballooning may not have been an outdoors leisure activity in India for all that long, but it is definitely gaining popularity in this part of the world. In 2005, the world record for the highest altitude balloon flight was broken here. On this occasion, businessman and avid aviator Vijaypat Singhania rose to 68,986 feet (21,027 meters) after setting off from the city of Mumbai and then later touched down 150 miles (240 kilometers) away.
Silently floating over the semi-arid landscape
In 2010, the Pushkar International Balloon Festival launched, with the third event having been held in 2013. It coincides with the camel and livestock fair, providing an extra dimension to this already very popular event. In 2012, 20 balloons took part in the event, and with the incredible scenery as a backdrop, it’s not hard to see the appeal.
Green fields, towns and roads patchwork the ground below
“Since we had organized a series of balloon safaris, we have been able to generate a lot of enthusiasm amongst balloon pilots across the world,” Samit Garg, one of the festival’s organizers, told merinews.com. “Out of the 40 entries we received, we managed to shortlist 20 pilots to be part of the Pushkar Balloon Festival 2011.”
Trees and hedges are tiny from up here.
A fun competitive element has also been incorporated into the festival, in the form of a “Hare and Hound” race. In this contest, one balloon – the Hare – takes off; then later, after a suitable area in which to land has been selected, one of the occupants in the Hare balloon will unfurl a big “X” on the ground. The following balloons – the Hounds – take off around quarter of an hour after the Hare balloon and have to follow its course as closely as possible. However, this is tricky when there are wind currents to navigate – and with the Hare deliberately changing altitudes. When the Hounds find the “X,” they then drop beanbag markers with the aim of landing them as close as they can to the center of the target. Whichever team gets their marker nearest to the “X” is the winner.
A colorful hot air balloon contrasts sharply with the sandy terrain.
As well as being among the oldest cities in India, Pushkar is also considered one of the holiest for those of the Hindu faith. Even so, the majority of the temples found here are relatively modern, because during the 17th century, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the original buildings. They were, however, later reconstructed.
Glowing balloons create a stunning image over the water at night.
Today, the special nightglow balloons are arguably one of the highlights of the festival, and they look particularly striking when hovering over water. Pushkar is located on the edge of the large Pushkar Lake, which has been a pilgrimage site since as early as the 2nd century BCE. It became an artificial lake most likely during the 1100s, after the creation of a dam over the Luni River.
Travel by train or by balloon… decisions, decisions
Pushkar Lake has an interesting tale behind it. According to the stories, the lake was formed by the tears of the god Shiva, who was grieving over the death of his wife, Sati. There are several such stories linking Pushkar with gods and the divine, perhaps bestowing it with an otherworldly air.
One balloon rises up above the rest over the city.
The old city is not the only interesting scenery ballooners can see during the festival. Their flights also take them over camels, sand dunes, mountains and other landmarks around Pushkar. And for those on the ground, the colorful balloons themselves are an attraction, as they float by with the clouds.
The sun sets on the horizon as the balloons pass by.
Unfortunately, not everything seen from the vantage point of the balloons is pleasant, and the heavy traffic of tourists to Pushkar is not without its downsides. According to one commenter, visitors and inhabitants need to be mindful of the use of plastics and other toxic materials and their potential effect on the environment, and a better sewage system ought to be put in place as well. Any ballooners would also be able to see the deforested areas around the lake and town, as well as the surrounding hills, described as “degraded and barren.”
From this height, multi-storied buildings look like little models.
The government is trying to implement education and conservation strategies, but rehabilitating the environment may take time. Hopefully, the authorities’ efforts will be successful, and the balloons will ultimately sail over a landscape that is not only spectacular but also healthy and sustainable.