Roopkund Skeleton Lake [Dark Tourism in India]

One for the bucket list for intrepid dark tourists has to be Roopkund Lake, otherwise known as Skeleton Lake in India. Situated in the Uttarakhand Himalayas, getting there is no easy task.

Not only do you need to be physically up to it, (the lake is at an altitude of 16,500 feet (5,029 m), a hired guide is essential in order to find the place. There is no discernible path.

Once you are there, you will discover the skeletal remains of hundreds of people. They surround the lake, skulls, and bones are strewn about haphazardly, some submerged in the water others sat among rocks at the water’s edge.

Clearly something tragic occurred here. And the story of what happened to these people is just as strange as the sight itself.

History of Skeleton Lake, Roopkund

Roopkund_Lake in summer
Roopkund Lake in Summer. Image: Schwiki [CC BY-SA]

The Discovery

The grisly discovery of the lake dates back to 1942. A forest ranger named H. K. Madhwal stumbled across it while on a patrol. (Some reports of the bones date back to the late 19th century however no official action was taken.)

At the time of Madhwal’s discovery, the lake was frozen. It was impossible to see all of the hidden remains.

In fact, the full extent of the skeletons is only clearly visible during a short spell in the summer after the ice has melted.

How did the skeletons come to be there?

Roopkund, skeleton lake Himalayas
Ashokyadav739 [CC BY-SA]
So what killed the hundreds of people whose skeletons ended up in Roopkund Lake? It would be another 60 years before that question could be answered.

It was first thought that the bones belonged to Japanese soldiers. World War 2 was still underway, and the enemy perishing in the high-altitude conditions of the Himalayas while crossing into India was a feasible explanation.

It wasn’t long before this was ruled out however, a basic visual inspection made it clear that the bones were too old.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that a ballpark age on the remains could be made. Carbon dating placed the estimated death between the “12th to 15th century”.

Even then the cause of death remained unknown.

The cause of death at Skeleton Lake

Theories on the cause of death ranged from a ritual mass-suicide to them being victims of an invading horde.

It wasn’t until 2004 that a consensus was reached. The National Geographic Channel commissioned a TV documentary with experts working together to uncover what exactly happened at the lake, (a link to a dodgy YouTube version is below).

30 skeletons were retrieved (due to the glacial conditions of the lake, the flesh was still attached to some of them), along with wooden artifacts, iron spearheads, leather slippers, and rings.

Radiocarbon testing of the remains at Oxford University narrowed the date of mass death to around 850 BCE.

However, it was a thorough analysis of the skulls that began to uncover the cause of death.

Each skull had sustained a similar injury; no matter their stature or position they had experienced a fatal blow to the head.

Everyone at the lake had died in a similar way, and more importantly, at the same time. Furthermore, the bodies had wounds only on their heads and shoulders; the blows had all come from directly above.

The solution was unexpected, but obvious from the evidence: those medieval travelers had died from a severe hailstorm.

Death by Hailstorm

Schwiki [CC BY-SA]
The theory gains weight from a number of avenues. Firstly there is the physical evidence of the injuries we have just described.

There is also the fact the victims had no way of seeking shelter. Trapped in the valley they would have experienced the full force of the storm, with the sudden explosion of tennis-ball-size spheres of rock-solid ice proving lethal.

Freak weather fronts in the area are also known.

Finally, a local legend depicts the event to some degree. William Sax, a cultural anthropologist at Germany’s Heidelberg University had studied the hill people and their collective memories and myths for years.

He was approached by the team behind the 2004 documentary and revealed that a traditional song sung by women of the area speaks of the tragedy.

The song describes the rage of the goddess Nanda Devi at interlopers who sacrilegiously brought carnal behavior into her sanctuary. She rained death upon them, with hailstones “hard as iron”.

Where is Roopkund (Skeleton) Lake

Getting to Roopkund Lake today

Twelve hundred years after that fatal hail storm, over 300 bodies still rest in the mass grave at Roopkund Lake.

As I mentioned earlier, you will need a guide to take you there, however, venturing into the Uttarakhand Himalayas isn’t dangerous as long as you are fit enough for the trek and high-altitude conditions.

Expect a 3-4 day trek to the lake starting from Gwaldum in the Chamoli district. The guide will likely take you via Lohajung, a small pass where you can pick up essential supplies.

May/June is the best time to go as the ice will have melted, revealing more of the bones.

Featured Image:  Ashokyadav739 [CC BY-SA]

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