The Lake of The Dead: Roopkund

Apr 21, 2022 0 comments

At a breathtaking altitude of 16,500ft, pristine waters of the Himalayas lay frozen to their depths for most part of the year. Come summer though, the dangerous torrents are unleashed from their icy shackles to reveal a riverbed of bones, flanked by a shore of skeletal remains camouflaged by nude shades of the rugged slope. This is Roopkund or the Skeleton Lake in Uttarakhand, India—straight out of figments of your wildest imagination, into true accounts of history.

Roopkund or the Skeleton Lake in Uttarakhand

View of Roopkund from Junargali, some 200 metres above. Photo: Soham Sarkar/Flickr

In 1942, an Indian forest official named H K Madhwal stumbled upon a host of skeletons that lay strewn across this lake. Somewhere in the folds of the mighty Trisul, the forest ranger was left aghast by his findings—hundreds of bones and skulls, some with flesh still intact. The nearest settlement was a tedious five-day trek from the area. Where had the bodies come from? How had they been preserved so well? Over the years, some 600 to 800 bodies were discovered. Despite the mythological origins of the glacial tarn, their existence came to be associated with morose theories of logical death. The hypotheses worked like a charm, for hoards of gutsy tourists soon began making their way up to discover the mysteries of the Skeleton Lake for themselves.

Roopkund or the Skeleton Lake in Uttarakhand

Photo: vivek shukla/Flickr

Stories of the Dead

At first, it was believed that the bodies were those of Japanese soldiers who had tried to invade India’s territory. Alternatively, they could have been Tibetan traders passing the Silk Route, who perished under an epidemic. Some believed the location was a cemetery for those who died during a violent hailstorm, supposedly manifested by goddess Nanda Devi. One theory behind this is that these were King Jasidhwal, his wife and their entourage of soldiers and dancers, who were taking a pilgrimage to celebrate the birth of the king’s child. But having broken the rules of the pilgrimage, the king enraged goddess Nanda Devi, who unleashed her wrath in the form of a storm. This was not altogether strange, considering the origin story of the lake itself. It is said that when Lord Shiva and goddess Parvati were enroute to mount Kailash, the goddess expressed her wish to have a bath. But to her dismay, there was no source of water around. It was then that Lord Shiva dug his trident into the ground and the cirque emerged, full of water. The water was crystal clear, and mirrored the beautiful appearance of goddess Parvati. Hence, it came to be known as Roopkund. Clearly, supernatural elements and piety have populated local folklore in India for centuries. However, another theory behind the hailstorm was that it was no king but a group of common Indian’s undertaking a pilgrim journey called Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra in the 9th century.

Roopkund or the Skeleton Lake in Uttarakhand

Photo: sayanaditya bhattacharya/Flickr

But the apocryphal claims about the pond and its skeletal mysteries have long been contended by archeological findings. A five-year long study revealed that the remains dated back to 1,200 years. The carbon dating suggested that the dead were not necessarily of the same era, and could have perished some 1,000 years apart. Their genetic construction suggested diversity in ethnicity as well: some were linked to south Asia, who died during different events between the seventh and 10th century; others were linked to present-day Europe (Greece or Crete) who lay dead since the 19th century. The men and women were all adults, and in healthy conditions, untouched by any epidemic. In a place where no tools or weapons, no clothes or remnants of shelter have persisted, the mystery of the lonely skeletons continues to heighten the level of intrigue.

That the site lay on the route of a pilgrimage is still under consideration. However, no credible sources have been found to corroborate this. As scientists and historians continue to mull over the presence of the skeletons, the lake attracts more and more commoners to its ghastly charm each year. As the waters melt and a bony bed is revealed under the waves, memories of an unknown past come to life, calling trekkers of today to discover what lies beyond the snow laden ranges of the Himalayas. The site remains unprotected against the slap of tourism, and its dead turn in their icy graves at the prospect of losing their haven to careless treading.

# Ancient DNA from the skeletons of Roopkund Lake reveals Mediterranean migrants in India
# The Tribune
# National Geographic


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