Nestling high in the Himalayas on the Indian side of the mountains, sits Roopkund Lake, a remote frozen lake hidden deep in a valley and covered with ice and snow. This small glacial lake is only 130 feet in diameter and 7 feet deep. It’s located at 16,500 feet above sea level, and for much of the year it’s frozen over. But on high Summer days it thaws to reveal hundreds of human skeletons many still with flesh, preserved by the freezing conditions.
At the last count, there were an estimated 600-800 skeletons found at the site.
Since the skeletons were first discovered, by a British forest ranger patrol, during WWII in 1942, they have fired the public’s imagination. In India, the lake is called Skeleton Lake, and speculation about the fate of the people who met their death on the lake has become part of folklore.
The local tourist board promotes it as “the lake of deepest mystery” and tries to draw curious tourists into the region. But tourist gimmicks aside this is still a fascinating mystery that has yet to be resolved.
So who were these mysterious lake people, and what fate befell them?
At first, the remains were thought to belong to Japanese soldiers on a reconnaissance mission, but close study of the bones found that were too old, probably hundreds of years old.
The Great Indian King Theory
Over the years a number of theories arose regarding the skeletons. One local theory claims that they are the remains a great Indian king, along with his queen and their entourage, who crossed the mountains for mysterious reasons of state, some 870 years ago. When they entered the valley, the party were struck by a blizzard and perished.
The Tibetan Invasion Theory
Another theory claims that they’re the remains of British-led Indian troops who tried to invade Tibet in 1841, and were beaten back by Tibetan forces. After the conflict, as the theory goes, survivors retreated back over the mountains and were caught in snowdrifts, and froze or starved to death.
The Cholera Epidemic or Plague Theory
Yet another theory assumes that the lake is a graveyard where victims of cholera or bubonic plague epidemics were buried.
The Angry Goddess Theory
In the Hindu villages nearby, there’s songs about how Goddess Nanda Devi conjures up ice storms that kill people that make their way through the mountains. Nanda Devi, the second-highest mountain in India, is revered as a mountain goddess.
Early studies of the remains have found that most of the people who perished were taller than average and aged between 35 and 40. There were no children. Some of them were elderly but were in good health.
Also, it has been assumed, by most theories, that the skeletons were all in one party and died in a single cataclysmic event. However, the single group assumption has been recently refuted by DNA analysis of the skeletons. Genetic studies have found that remains are from a diverse range of people: one group were genetically similar to present-day people living in South Asia, and another were closely related to people from present-day southern Europe, particularly those living in the Mediterranean island of Crete. Carbon-dating has also confirmed that the deaths had occurred throughout a 1,000 year period.
It’s thought that the Cretan group, discovered in the lake, might be decendents of Alexander the Great’s army that invaded India in the year 326 B.C., and fought a number of campaigns in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. After Alexander’s invasions, there was an enduring Greek influence in the north of the sub-continent for centuries, and perhaps, the Roopkund studies have revealed a tribe or band in northern India of Greek descent, that Alexander left behind.
Also at the site, no weapons or signs of combat injuries were found, ruling out the “Tibetan Invasion” theory. Trade has also been ruled out, since there were no tradeable goods, and the lake is not near a trade route. Genetic studies have also found no evidence of ancient or recent pathogenic bacteria, ruling out the “Cholera Epidemic or Plague” theory.
Hiking to Roopkund Lake
The Roopkund Trek has been effectively banned by the Indian government
The Himalayan trek to Roopkund trek has been effectively banned by the Indian government, by banning camping overnight in the meadows and approaches in Uttarakhand to Roopkund, which makes it impossible to hike to the lake. The local forest department has rigoursly enforced the ban on camping across the Uttarakhand region of India, decamping or arresting trekkers.
Is the Roopkund Lake Trek dangerous?
Attempting to hike to Roopkund Lake without undergoing a proper acclimatisation routine is extremely dangerous. And in the current situation, where camping in the Uttarakhand meadows below the lake is banned, acclimatisation to the Himalayan altitude of the lake is very difficult, exposing trekkers to severe and potentially fatal mountain sickness.