Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.
A Frightening Discovery
In 1942 during the height of World War II, Hari Kishan Madhwal was one of the several rangers posted in the Himalayas by the British to keep an eye on any ‘suspicious activities’. The area was desolate and the weather was bitterly cold as he navigated the steep and hilly terrain, picking his way through the valley and finally reaching the edge of a glacial lake that was called Roopkund Lake by the locals.
The scene he saw sent shivers down his spine.
Hundreds of skulls and bones were scattered haphazardly, some floating in the clear, turquoise lake waters and others spread all around the edges of the lake. There were also bits of leather, glass, and frigid flesh stuck to some of the bones.
The icy air had perfectly preserved the remains. The ghastly scene, in contrast with the scenic beauty of the mountains, was terrifying to behold even for a hardened ranger like him.
The British were terrified. Who were these people? How did they reach this desolate terrain? Were they Japanese soldiers attempting to cross into India? The biggest question of all, how did so many people die?
The British sent a team of investigators to the spot who analyzed more than 300 skeletons. They found that the skeletons did not belong to either the Japanese or the British soldiers but were much older. The investigators deciphered that the remains were not fresh.
The British were too preoccupied with issues related to the war to pursue the ancient mystery any further. It would be many years later before scientists finally focused their attention on the mysterious skeletons of Roopkund Lake. Historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have dubbed it as one of the spookiest mysteries ever encountered in history.
History of Roopkund Lake
Roopkund Lake is a glacial lake, situated in the Himalayas, at an altitude of approximately 16,500 feet. According to Hindu legend, Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati were on the way to their abode in the Kailash mountain after Parvati had just finished a ferocious battle with demons, and she wanted a place to bathe to remove the grime and the blood from her body.
Not finding any suitable place, Shiva plunged his trident into the ground, and water gushed out of the opening. The waters were so clear that Parvati could easily see her reflection in it. From there came the name ‘Roopkund’—‘roop’ meaning appearance and ‘kund’ meaning a small reservoir.
It was a minor Hindu religious site for centuries, so finding such a massive concentration of bones was an unexpected event that cannot be easily explained.
The Mystery of Skeleton Lake
Initial investigations revealed that the bones date back to sometime between the 12th and the 15th centuries CE, with some also believing that the group of people were pilgrims who got trapped in an avalanche and died.
The victims were healthy when they died, which rules out a mass epidemic. No weapons or combat signs at the site prove that Roopkund was not a war site. In fact, Roopkund is defined as a ‘problematic’ site by archaeologists as, unlike most archaeological sites, it is neither a religious site nor a battleground nor even having any strategic importance.
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Then how did more than 800 people die here? Why did they, first of all, come to this desolate place? As per local legends, an old ‘song’ passed on through generations immortalizes the event. As per the song, a royal procession of a local king defiled the holy place by dancing girls and liquor. Engaged, the Nanda Devi goddess struck the group down with “iron balls” thrown from the sky killing them instantly.
Investigations on the skulls show that all of them had been hit by something round, like a cricket ball. In addition, the scientists have also found the presence of heavily dressed women, leather shoes, bamboo staves, and glass bangles confirming the group to be part of some procession of either pilgrims or some king’s group.
Could the ‘iron balls’ mentioned in the song be large hailstones that fell on the group from the sky? The absence of injuries to other body parts indicates that hailstones might be the cause of the skull fractures. But then how did the bones get scattered? Bones are scattered throughout the site and not a single skeleton found so far is intact.
Some other theories say that perhaps it was some sort of ritual mass suicide. But why would so many people commit suicide together, and why at this place only? No one knows for sure.
New Research Deepens the Mystery
A study published in 2019 by a team of Indian and international scientists has deepened the mystery further.
As per the detailed DNA analysis conducted by the group, the remains not only belong to Indians but also belong to people who hailed from Southeast Asia and faraway Greece. Another interesting point revealed in the study was that the victims were the result of two separate catastrophic events occurring over a thousand years apart.
The Indian group succumbed to the ‘same’ event between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. The other group consisting of people from the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia experienced the same event between the 17th and 20th centuries CE.
Two groups were hit by the same type of catastrophic event that occurred over a thousand years apart. What exactly happened? The research team is not sure as David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard and a key member of the study says:
“It may be even more of a mystery than before. It was unbelievable because the type of ancestry we find in about a third of the individuals is so unusual for this part of the world.”
What was a Mediterranean group doing at a Hindu religious site? Researchers don’t yet know and will not reveal anything until further studies are done. As Niraj Rai, an archaeogeneticist at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, India says:
“We have tried to answer all possible sources of genetic ancestries of [the] Roopkund skeletons but failed to answer why Mediterranean people were traveling to this lake and what they were doing here.”
It is possible we will never get to know the answers. On the other hand, further research may also reveal more startling findings. One thing is for sure; the lake is not going to reveal its secrets too easily.
How to Reach Roopkund Lake
- By Road: Roopkund lies in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand state of India. So, traveling from Delhi, your route will follow Delhi–Haridwar–Rishikesh–Devprayag-Srinagar–Rudraprayag–Karnaprayag–Debal. The total distance up to Debal town is 477 km and it takes around 16 hours of travel from Delhi. Once you reach Debal, the trek to Roopkund is 3 days from here starting from the base camp village Lohajung-Wan which is a 1-hour drive from Debal town. Lohajung-Wan has a small market where trekking essentials can be purchased before embarking upon the trek.
- By Train: Rishikesh is the nearest railway station to Roopkund Lake. From Rishikesh, several private cars and buses operate up to Karnaprayag town and some up to Debal also.
- By Air: Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport is the nearest airport to Roopkund. You can catch a flight up to Dehradun from Delhi and from there follow the road trip to Debal town. The approximate driving distance between Dehradun and Debal is 291 km
- Best Time to Visit: August to October is the time to trek to Roopkund. Some people also suggest May, but it is a bit risky due to heavy snow. September to October is the perfect time to trek as after that the area becomes inaccessible due to continuous snow. You can get further details about Roopkund from the Uttarakhand tourism website.
- Trekking Details: The Roopkund trek is difficult, and you need to be in good physical condition to complete it. Although the trek is full of scenic villages and forests, the air starts getting thinner as you gain altitude. So, if you are beginning to suffer altitude sickness at some point, take a break, gather your energy levels, and then continue further. It is advisable to travel in a group.
Remember, it is a completely isolated place with no permanent human settlements in the vicinity. So, it is better to embark upon this trip completely prepared in mind, body, and supplies.
- DNA study deepens mystery of lake full of skeletons
- Roopkund—The Lake of Skeletons
- Roopkund lake's skeleton mystery solved! Scientists reveal bones belong to 9th-century people who died during a heavy hailstorm
- The unsolved mystery of Skeleton Lake
- The Unsolved Mystery Behind the Skeletons of Roopkund Lake
- Hundreds of skeletons fill this remote Himalayan lake. How did they get there?
- Hundreds of Skeletons at Roopkund Lake of the Himalayas
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ravi Rajan