Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.
The year was 1942 and it was 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.
He saw hundreds of skulls and bones scattered haphazardly, some floating within the clear, turquoise waters of the lake and others spread all around the edges of the lake. There were also bits of leather, glass and frigid flesh stuck on some of the bones.
The icy air had perfectly preserved the remains, as 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? And 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 were much older and do not belong to either Japanese or the British but were much older as they were not ‘fresh’ as the investigators deciphered.
The British had too many war issues to worry about than to pursue an ancient mystery further and it would be much later before scientists finally focussed their attention on the mysterious skeletons of Roopkund Lake. Historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have dubbed it as one of the spookiest mysteries of history ever encountered.
The story 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, once Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati were on the way to their abode in the Kailash mountain. 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 in 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 place for centuries so finding such a massive concentration of bones was an unexpected event that cannot be easily explained. 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 into an avalanche and died.
The victims were also 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 or even having any strategic importance.
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 also 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? Not knows for sure
Is the mystery finally solved?
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. Also, another interesting point revealed by the study was that the victims were the result of two separate catastrophic events occurring over a thousand years.
The Indian group succumbed to the ‘same’ event between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. And 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 hit by the same type of catastrophic event that occurred thousands of 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.”
And what was a Mediterranean group doing at a Hindu religious place? The researchers don’t know yet and don’t want to 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.
Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on February 08, 2021:
Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on February 08, 2021:
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 08, 2021:
ravirajan01 I had no idea of this lake, but you enlightened me in detail here. Unique and informative about the mysteries of this lake.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2021:
That was a fascinating account. Thank you for sharing this most mysterious place.
Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on February 07, 2021:
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on February 07, 2021:
Interesting article about the Roopkund lake or the skeleton lake.
Certainly, it's the most mysterious lake. We still don't know the exact reason of so many skeletons and to which part of the World, they belonged. But the hail storm theory seems convincing. May be, some more research will further clarify the mystery.
Nicely written article-- well done.
Thank you for sharing.