Located at a height of approximately 16,500 feet in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, the Roopkund Lake is a popular site among all adventure junkies. It is one of the popular treks in Uttarakhand which boasts of its enchanting beauty varying from the magnificent views of the great Himalayas, dense virgin forests, gurgling brooks, lush green Ali and Bedni bugyal (meadows). The spectacular scenes of Mt. Trishul and Nanda Ghunti will leave anyone mesmerised. In addition, adventure fanatics get to see Chaukhamba range, Neelkanth peak, Kedarnath, Kedar Dome and many other mountain ranges during the Roopkund trek. Among them, the Chaukhamba range is clearly visible from my house in my paternal village in Uttarakhand. 😀
However, this two-meter deep lake has remained an unsolved mystery for scientists, anthropologists and historians for so many years. And the reason for their keen interest in this area is 800 human skeletons which are found all around this lake. This entire area remains snow-covered throughout the year. It is only during autumn season, when the snow starts melting, when these human skeletons scattered all over this place become visible. Scientists and experts hold different views in terms of the history of these skeletons.
These skeletons were very first found by a British forest guard in 1942, who chanced upon this lake. Initially, these skeletons were believed to be of Japanese soldiers of the WWII. Whereas, many British explorers and scholars held that these skeletons were of General Zorawar Singh and his men, who while returning after the 1841 Tibbet War lost way in this area and eventually succumbed to bad weather. The radiocarbon tests in 1960s rejected this theory and established the time of all these skeletons from the 12th to 15th century. This led many historians to maintain that the skeletons belonged to the unsuccessful attack of Muhammad Tughlaq on Garhwal Himalaya. Others believed this to be the case of an epidemic while some anthropologists saw it as a ritual suicide. Thus till the initial years of 2000, DNA studies supported the theory of these skeletons’ South Asian ancestry.
In 2019, a special report by National Geographic presented a clear picture on these skeletons’ history. After the full genomic analyses of 38 sets of skeletons, experts reached to a new conclusion. According to their findings, out of those 38 people, 23 had South Asian ancestry who died between the 7th and 10th centuries. Other 14 died there between the 17th and 20th centuries – probably in a single event. Unlike the South Asian skeletons, all these 14 skeletons were found to have Mediterranean genetic ancestry of Greece and Crete. The last person, who died at the same time as these Mediterranean people, belonged to East Asia ancestry. The analyses also suggested that all these individuals were not related to one another in any way. Further, the additional isotopic studies revealed that the South Asian and Mediterranean groups used to eat different diets. Even after these findings, researchers still do not know the reason of this Mediterranean group’s travel to Roopkund and their cause of death.
Scientists do not believe them to be the casualties of war. These skeletons include both, males and females. There is no proof of any kind of combat violence nor any weapons have been found here. All these individuals were healthy during their death, thus it rejects the theory of death due to any epidemic.
If a popular local folk lore of the region is to be believed, it talks about a royal procession. For centuries, a pilgrimage named Raj Jat is organised every 12 years in this area which is dedicated to the Goddess Nanda Devi. It is believed that during medieval times the King of Kannauj Jasdhawal undertook a pilgrimage to the Goddess Nanda Devi in the Garhwal Himalaya on the occasion of his heir’s birth. During the journey, the boisterous dance and music infuriated the Goddess. As a result, “iron balls” thrown from the sky killed all of them.
This strengthens the possibility of these people being the pilgrims who got killed during heavy hailstorm. Experts have found parasols that were used during the procession from those human remains. There have been unhealed fractures found on some of the skulls which indicates towards a severe hailstorm – the “iron balls” as mentioned in the folk lore.
That’s why to verify this and other aspects, an international team of researchers was formed which performed genomic analyses of the Roopkund remains. The finding of the Mediterranean ancestry in the Indian Himalaya came as a big surprise for the team.
Now, the question arises did this Mediterranean group come here for this pilgrimage and stay here for a long time during which they died. William Sax, head of Heidelberg University’s anthropology department and author of Mountain Goddess, a book on the pilgrimage, does not see any sense in this belief. Sax, himself, visited the lake thrice with his last trip made in 2004 as part of a National Geographic television show.
This year in 2020, researchers had the plans for another expedition to the Roopkund Lake to study the artifacts associated with the skeletons. At present, the chances of this are very low seeing the current scenario of the coronavirus pandemic.