It’s not often that a humble chai shop becomes a part of sporting lore. In some ways, the solitary tea shop on a remote mountain top set up by chacha (Hindi for uncle; no one cares to remember his real name in these parts) close to three decades back serves as an apt metaphor for a sport that’s considered an ultimate individual pursuit in its purest form. After all, what can be more individual, free-spirited and elevating than flying through the crisp mountain air chasing the winds and thermals suspended from a canopy made from high-performance nylon under azure skies.
Among the many aromas that waft out of the stone-and-mud hut is the quaint legend that without this tea shop, Billing (the take-off point for paragliding) wouldn’t have become one of the most desired paragliding sites in the world. Sometime in the early 1980s, when two foreigners, Neil Kinnear and Keith Nichols, came to these parts with hang-gliders in tow, their fates got intertwined with that of the solitary tea seller.
The Bir and Billing show
As the years went by, word about the uniqueness of the terrain around Bir (the landing site) and Billing in Kangra district, shaped by the hand of nature, spread far and wide through word of mouth. By the mid ’90s, paragliders from Europe started trickling into the little hamlet of Bir that served as the base. And all along, tales of chacha as the saviour of flyers, who offered food and shelter in his hut perched on the high mountain, too flew on the wingtips of the pilots.
The AAI Paragliding World Cup marks the coming of age of this place and the sport in India. Hemmed by the giants of the Dhauladhar range of the middle Himalaya to the north and sweeping valleys to the south and west create strong thermals and smooth unidirectional wind that just about create perfect conditions for paragliding.
The right thermals
“There aren’t too many places like this in the world where you get such perfect conditions for paragliding on a good day. The high mountain ridges generate strong thermals that are ideal for gaining elevation and the shallow and wide valleys below generate very stable wind patterns that allow pilots to fly great distances in this area,” says Maxime Pinot, one of the top French pilots.
Flying far and high beyond the range of even the most discerning eye and powerful binoculars is what attracted some of the top professional pilots from around the world to come for the last of the World Cup events to Bir-Billing. Some of the biggest names in the sport such as Jurij Vidic from Slovenia, Julian Wirtz, the legendary Frenchman, Torsten Siegel from Germany, Andre Rainsford of South Africa and Xevi Bonet Dalmau were among the 121 pilots who jumped off the mountain face at Billing in the first paragliding World Cup to be held in India. “Irrespective of the result, I have enjoyed every moment here. Flying over 100km during the tasks is what we paragliders yearn for,” said Wirtz.
India played its part
The World Cup also provided the cream of Indian talent the opportunity to rub shoulders with top flyers. The numbers in the result sheet might reflect the chasm between the Indians and the best in the business, but the learning they took back from the competition is beyond the pale of digits. “In paragliding, learning continues till the day a pilot flies. Flying in the lead pack with the best is a very valuable learning experience. It’s not that we don’t have the basics in place; it’s the finer aspects that make the difference in the final outcome. In this sport it’s all about finesse instead of brute strength,” says Ajay Kumar from Manali, who topped in three tasks among the Indians. The World Cup offered several lessons even for other stakeholders. Though the Billing Paragliding Association that hosted the competition came in for praise from the foreign contingent, those well-versed with the international paragliding scene point out that Indian pilots have a long way to go before they can compete with elite pilots from France, Germany and rest of Europe.
For a better show
“For the sport to develop in India, which is blessed with some of the best paragliding sites like Bir-Billing, it needs to develop a robust organisational structure. India needs more domestic, regional and international competitive events. Most of the European pilots compete in international competitions when they are not flying commercially, which makes them better,” said Goran Dimikovski, president of Paragliding World Cup Association.
Of the many fallouts of this World Cup, perhaps the most salutary one is that it has raised the profile of an activity that was perceived by many as a hobby into the realm of a genuine sporting activity. “It’s important that those involved with the sport in India realise that this event has raised the profile of the sport in the country. It should be capitalised upon to promote the sport among youngsters. If it happens, sky is literally the limit and it will be great for paragliding,” said Dimikovski.
The World Cup might just be the first long flight that the sport needed in India. Perhaps, the spirit of chacha floating in the blue yonder above the craggy heights of the Dhauladhar will blow more wind into the sails of Indian paragliding.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Delhi)