Why Is Roopkund Called the Lake of Skeletons? Roopkund the Himalayan lake, locally known as “Mystery Lake”, is a glacial lake in Uttarakhand, India. It is also called “Skeleton Lake”. But why is Roopkund called the lake of skeletons? This name is not without reason: the edges of the lake are literally littered with hundreds of human skeletons. In the winter of 1942, on the shores of a lake high in the Himalayas, a forest ranger came across hundreds of bones and skulls, some with flesh still on them.
When the snow and ice melted that summer, many more were visible through the clear water, lying on the bottom. The lake, a glacial tarn called Roopkund, was more than sixteen thousand feet above sea level, an arduous five-day trek from human habitation, in a mountain cirque surrounded by snowfields and battered by storms.
In the midst of the Second World War, British officials in India initially worried that the dead might be the remains of Japanese soldiers attempting a secret invasion. The apparent age of the bones quickly dispelled that idea. But what had happened to all these people? Why were they in the mountains, and when and how had they died?
In 1956, the Anthropological Survey of India, in Calcutta, sponsored several expeditions to Roopkund to investigate. A snowstorm forced the first expedition to turn back, but two months later another expedition made it and returned to Calcutta with remains for study. Carbon dating, still an unreliable innovation, indicated that the bones were between five hundred and eight hundred years old.
Indian scientists were intensely interested in the Roopkund mystery. The lake, some thought, was a place where holy men committed ritual suicide. Or maybe the dead were a detachment of soldiers from a thirteenth-century army sent by the Sultan of Delhi in an ill-fated attempt to invade Tibet, or a group of Tibet-bound traders who had lost their way. Perhaps this was hallowed ground, an open-air cemetery, or a place where victims of an epidemic were dumped to prevent contagion.
Roopkund Lake is located 5,029 metres (16,500ft) above sea level at the bottom of a steep slope on Trisul, one of India’s highest mountains. For more than half a century, anthropologists and scientists have studied the remains.
Why Is Roopkund Called the Lake of Skeletons?
The lake has attracted curious scientists and visitors for years. To date, the skeletal remains of an estimated 600-800 people have been found here. In tourism promotions, the local government describes it as a “mystery lake”.
One old theory associates the remains to an Indian king, his wife and their attendants, all of whom perished in a blizzard some 870 years ago. Another suggests that some of the remains are of Indian soldiers who tried to invade Tibet in 1841, and were beaten back. More than 70 of them were then forced to find their way home over the Himalayas and died on the way.
Yet another assumes that this could have been a “cemetery” where victims of an epidemic were buried. In villages in the area, there’s a popular folk song that talks about how Goddess Nanda Devi created a hail storm “as hard as iron” which killed people winding their way past the lake. India’s second-highest mountain, Nanda Devi, is revered as a goddess.
Earlier studies of skeletons have found that most of the people who died were tall – “more than average stature”. Most of them were middle-aged adults, aged between 35 and 40. There were no babies or children. Some of them were elderly women. All were of reasonably good health.
Also, it was generally assumed that the skeletons were of a single group of people who died all at once in a single catastrophic incident during the 9th Century. The latest five-year-long study, involving 28 co-authors from 16 institutions based in India, US and Germany, found all these assumptions may not be true. Scientists genetically analysed and carbon-dated the remains of 38 bodies, including 15 women, found at the lake – some of them date back to around 1,200 years.
They found that the dead were both genetically diverse and their deaths were separated in time by as much as 1,000 years. But more interestingly, the genetics study found the dead comprised a diverse people: one group of people had genetics similar to present-day people who live in South Asia, while the other “closely related” to people living in present-day Europe, particularly those living in the Greek island of Crete. Also, the people who came from South Asia “do not appear to come from the same population”.
Some of them have ancestry that would be more common in groups from the north of the subcontinent, while others have ancestry that would be more common from more southern groups. So did these diverse groups of people travel to the lake in smaller batches over a period of a few hundred years? Did some of them die during a single event?
No arms or weapons or trade goods were found at the site – the lake is not located on a trade route. Genetic studies found no evidence of the presence of any ancient bacterial pathogen that could provide disease as an explanation for the cause of deaths.
A pilgrimage that passes by the lake might explain why people were travelling in the area. Studies reveal that credible accounts of pilgrimage in the area do not appear until the late 19th Century, but inscriptions in local temples date between 8th and 10th Centuries, “suggesting potential earlier origins”.
So scientists believe that some of the bodies found at the site happened because of a “mass death during a pilgrimage event”. But how did people from the eastern Mediterranean land up at a remote lake in India’s highest mountains?
It seems unlikely that people from Europe would have traveled all the way from Roopkund to participate in a Hindu pilgrimage. Or was it a genetically isolated population of people from distant eastern Mediterranean ancestry that had been living in the region for many generations? Now we know why is Roopkund Called the Lake of Skeletons.
Since 2004, the eerie Skeleton Lake has become a relatively popular tourist destination, appealing to the imagination of many adventurous trekkers. Unfortunately, there have been reports of tourists trekking back from the lake with skeletal remains in their ‘pockets’. Roopkund lake is now an official eco-tourism destination, which makes stealing anything from the site a punishable offence.
Content for this question contributed by Jeanne Barber, resident of Hillsborough County, Florida, USA