High in India’s Himalayas, 16,500 feet above sea level and nestled in a snowy valley at the base of Trishul, three Himalayan mountain peaks of western Kumaun, lies Roopkund Lake, often called Skeleton Lake.
Reaching the lake is a challenging, week-long, 33-mile round trip trek in Nanda Devi National Park. The lake itself is not huge, only 130 feet wide and 8 feet deep, but its beauty is mesmerizing. Soft rays of sunshine peek over snow-covered mountain ranges, illuminating the lake and surrounding slopes, which are strewn with hundreds of human bones. Depending on the season and weather, the lake, which is frozen most of the year, expands and shrinks. Only when the snow melts for a few months in summer (August and September), are the skeletons visible. Most are well preserved, some with flesh still attached. These are the remains of an estimated 600-800 people.
What Happened At Roopkund Lake
The lake’s macabre secret was first chanced upon by a British forest ranger in 1942, during World War II. He initially thought the skeletons belonged to fallen Japanese soldiers trying to invade via India. A closer inspection by a team of British investigators, proved the bones to be much older.
Roopkund is relatively inaccessible, being several days trek from the nearest road head and lying hidden under snow for most of the year. After their initial discovery, the bones were forgotten; first during WWII and then as India gained its independence (1947). Only in the mid-1950s was any further research done, but by then, avalanches and earthquakes had shifted much of what had been found. Some of the scattered bones were collected and analyzed, but not much insight was gained.
For more than half a century, scientists and anthropologists have studied the skeletal remains, puzzling over their story. Who were these people? Where did they come from? When did they die? How did they die? Numerous theories have been proposed over the years — epidemic, landslide, earthquake, ritual suicide, ghosts, and more.
An Ongoing Mystery
One theory suggests that some 870 years ago, King Jasdal and his wife were undertaking a pilgrimage to win the favor of Nanda Devi, a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Parvati. The queen delivered a child on the journey, angering the goddess, who felt this had sullied her holy land, and the king brought along dancers and other luxuries that further enraged Parvati, so she conjured up a violent snowstorm, killing the king, his wife, and all their attendants. Another theory suggests the remains are of Indian soldiers, who had tried and failed to invade Tibet in 1841. The soldiers, beaten back, were forced to find their way home over the Himalayas, many perishing along the way. Yet another theory has it that the area was a cemetery of sorts for victims of an epidemic.
Early studies of the Roopkund skeletons concluded most of the victims were tall, middle-aged adults. Although there were no babies or children, some of the remains were of elderly women. All seemed to have been of reasonably good health. Initial studies led to the general assumption the skeletons were of a single group of people who died in a single catastrophic incident, during the 9th century.
In 2004, a National Geographic team traveled to Roopkund and retrieved about 30 skeletons. The lake’s high altitude and icy temperatures had preserved much of the remains, with some of the skeletons still having hair and flesh attached. Indian geneticists conducting DNA tests concluded the skeletons were roughly 1,200 years old. The study shed a little light on what may have happened, but the mystery was far from solved.
A five-year-long study, involving 28 co-authors from 16 institutions in India, the United States, and Germany, questioned all earlier assumptions about the Roopkund remains. Scientists carbon dated and genetically analyzed the remains of 38 bodies found at the lake. While some remains did indeed date back around 1,200 years, scientists found the dead were genetically diverse and that their deaths were separated in time by as much as 1,000 years!
The study found the skeletons represented diverse people; some remains having genetics similar to present-day South Asians, while others were seemingly closely related to people living in present-day Europe, particularly the Greek island of Crete. Did these diverse peoples travel to the lake in small groups over a few hundred years? Did they die in separate events? Did some of them die during a single event? While some of the ancient fatalities may have been the result of a single catastrophic event during a pilgrimage, how can the presence of eastern Mediterranean people at a remote lake in India’s highest mountains be accounted for?
It seems unlikely that people from Europe would have traveled all the way from Roopkund to participate in a Hindu pilgrimage. Or had perhaps a genetically isolated population of people of Mediterranean ancestry been living in the region for many generations? So many questions and so few answers. After all these years, it is still not clear what happened at Roopkund Lake.
Know Before You Go
Trekking to Roopkund was one of my first trips in India. It was not a popular route then, and we had the place to ourselves. Sadly, in the intervening years, Skeleton Lake became a popular destination for trekkers. Stories began to circulate of hikers returning from the lake with “skeletal souvenirs” in their backpacks. Authorities increased security to preserve the site, banning camping in the local meadows, making it impossible for hikers to reach the lake, as it is a journey of several days. Skeleton Lake now lies alone and undisturbed once again.
Trekking to Roopkund may no longer be an option, but let me recommend alternative treks to explore the beautiful Himalayas. White Magic, a company I used to guide with, offers the Gangotri Tapovan Trek, a great choice for first timers, and for those looking for more of a challenge, try the Nandanvan Vasukital Trek.
For another great outing in India, try a weekend getaway in Delhi.