Title Image: Schwiki / CC BY-SA 4.0



  Discovered in 1942 by a British forest guard in India, Roopkund has since become famously known as “Skeleton Lake”.

  When first discovered, WWII was still in full swing, making British authorities fear that the skeletons were of a hidden Japanese invasion force which had fallen victim to the harsh environment. After some investigation, this theory was proven false, but the truth behind the bizarre scene took decades to finally understand.

  The remains were not fresh enough to have been enemy soldiers, however, the dry, cold air of the region had preserved flesh, hair, and bones. This meant no one could properly determine exactly what period the remains were from, or what had killed them. There were also wooden artifacts, iron spearheads, leather slippers, and jewelry discovered with the bodies. With over 300 human skeletons in the small valley, theories ranged from epidemic to ritual suicide, but none could be proven indefinitely.

  Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit conducted radiocarbon dating on some of the remains, concluding that they dated back to around 850 AD, but how or why they were in the remote location still remained a mystery.

  One legend local to the region claimed the remains came from Raja Jasdhaval, the king of Kanauj, and his entourage. It is said that he was traveling with his pregnant wife, Rani Balampa, and was accompanied by servants, a dance troupe, and others on a pilgrimage to Nanda Devi shrine, for the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, which takes place every twelve years. During their pilgrimage, a sudden severe storm with extremely large hail stones struck. With nowhere to take shelter, the entire group perished near Roopkund. There is also an ancient and traditional folk song among Himalayan women which describes a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones “hard as iron.” This was only a legend, with no evidence to substantiate it, but more recent investigations actually lend support to the tale.

  A 2004 expedition to collect DNA samples revealed that there were two distinct groups of people among the skeletons, one being a family or tribe of closely related individuals, and a second smaller, shorter group of people who shared genetic properties similar to the local population of the area. These locals had most likely been hired as porters or guides for the foreign group.

  Further studies of the skeletons revealed a common trait among both groups, wounds on their heads and shoulders, caused by round objects. Researchers concluded that the victims at Roopkund had perished in a sudden hailstorm, just as described in the local legends and songs.

  While there is no definitive evidence proving that the legend and the group are one in the same, it is an intriguing connection. There is no historical evidence of any trade routes in the area around Roopkund, but it is on an important pilgrimage route of the Nanda Devi cult, which makes researchers wonder if it’s in fact related, or just one big coincidence.

  Roopkund has become a tourist destination, however, this strange place is covered with ice and snow for most of the year. When it is thawed, you must undertake a 3-4 day trek starting from Gwaldum in Chamoli district to get there by hiking, as there are no roads to its location. Even so, many visitors come each year to witness and investigate the bizarre sight.

  Because of the tourism, a growing concern about the regular loss of skeletons has occurred. It is feared that if steps are not taken to conserve them, the skeletons may gradually vanish, as it is reported that tourists have a habit of taking skeletal remains in large numbers. The district magistrate of Chamoli District has recommended that the area be protected, and governmental agencies have since made efforts to develop the area as an eco-tourism destination, to preserve the remainder of the skeletons.