In 1942, a British ranger at Nanda Devi National Park in the north of India was patrolling the mountains when he came across a lake in a canyon. At such a high altitude (over 5000 metres) Roopkund Lake had frozen entirely. When he looked in the frozen lake, he was shocked to see human skeletons.

Who goes there?

At this time during World War II the British, who were occupying India, were terrified of opposing Japanese troops approaching through the Himalayas. The ranger informed local forces and it was assumed that the people that had been found were advancing Japanese soldiers who had not made it through the mountains. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that this was not the case. But who were they and where did they come from?

The sheer volume of bodies only became apparent when the lake had thawed entirely. At the bottom of the lake were approximately 300 dead humans, nearly all of which had suffered the same fate. Their skulls and bodies showed signs of blows to the head. But still, no-one knew exactly what had happened here at Roopkund Lake.

Human Skeletons in Roopkund Lake

By Schwiki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A lot of the bodies were removed and inspected. The cold temperatures at this altitude has preserved not just the bones, but also some skin and hair. A clue lied alongside the bodies. Iron spear heads and leather slippers were found which suggested that these bodies had been here for a lot longer than anyone realised.

Now known to locals as Mystery and Skeletons Lake, the bodies and surrounding area was investigated for years, with no one getting any closer to what might have happened. For more than 60 years, the mystery went unsolved and theory after theory was put forward. Some thought it was the site of a mass suicide and others thought they might be Tibetan traders who got lost and succumbed to the altitude. But no theory would hold up under intense speculation.

Finding answers in Roopkund

In 2004, an expedition to the uninhabited region was taken by National Geographic filmmakers who enlisted the help of various professors and doctors from around the world to put an end to the mystery once and for all.

Using the latest carbon dating methods at Oxford University, the bodies were found to have come from the 9th century, long before anyone thought. Intriguingly, all of the people were found to have died at roughly the same time.

Archaeologists from Delhi University were able to ascertain that the dead were from two separate groups of people, one noticeably taller than the other. Due to some of the marking on the skulls, it is suggested that the smaller group were the porters, carrying the belongings of the taller people.

A paleopathologist at a college in Pune, India, noticed that a lot of the bones had similar abnormalities, suggesting that a lot of the dead people were related by blood, thus ruling out that this was an army. This was a group of men, women and children.

Why were they there?

There is no historical trade route to Tibet through the area, so that theory was ruled out also. The area near Roopkund Lake is, however, along an important pilgrimage route. The pilgrimage, known as the Nanda Devi Raj Jat is part of a Hindu festival that takes place every 12 years and ends right by Roopkund Lake.

Trekking path to Roopkund

Trekking path to Roopkund – By Djds4rce (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This journey is a tough one because of the extreme terrain it goes through. According to local mythology, a King once took some dancers to this sacred spot. Due to heavy snowfall, the people were trapped and the dancers were transformed into skeletons and stones. A second myth is that the king’s wife was pregnant and as she was giving birth, her placenta flowed down to Roopkund and this caused the death of the people there.

How did these people all die?

There were no injuries consistent with an avalanche, so this was also ruled out. But another clue was to come from Professor Dr William Sax, the head of anthropology at Heidelberg University in Germany. He had spent years studying the local people in the area and had recalled a traditional song that the women in the area sang.

The song told of how the goddess, Nanda, would strike down anyone who did not believe in her with hailstones as “hard as iron”. As the bodies that had been found suffered injuries consistent with large, cricket ball sized objects falling from great heights, it was determined that these people had been the victims of an unexpected, violent hailstorm. The mystery that had been lying under the surface of a frozen lake for 1200 years was solved.

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