Why A Lake In India Is Full Of Skeletons

“Blow wind, swell billow, and swim bark! / The storm is up, and all is on the hazard.” —William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

In A Nutshell

In 1942, hundreds of skeletons were found in a lake located in the Himalayas. For over 60 years, nobody knew who they were or how they got wiped out. There were many theories surrounding this morbid enigma, and it wasn’t until 2004 when scientists concluded that a freak, brutal hailstorm was the culprit.

The Whole Bushel

The skeletons of Lake Roopkund in India were first discovered in the mountains by a guard in 1942, at a height of 5,000 meters (16,400 ft). Until that point, they had often remained frozen in a glacier, hidden from view. But the glacier thawed every year, and they were eventually found. As they were discovered during World War II, many believed that they belonged to Japanese invaders. But the skeletons were soon estimated to be at least 100 years old, so speculation then turned to an army from Kashmir that disappeared in the Himalayas in 1841. The dates and numbers added up, so theories such as landslides, attacks, illness, and mass suicide abounded, and people generally accepted that the mystery had been solved. Not only were they wrong, they weren’t even close.

In the 1960s, the skeletons were dated again, and this time were said to have come from around 500–800 years ago, throwing the Kashmir theory out the window and fueling speculation that it might have been a failed invasion from a Delhi Sultan in the 14th century. Damage to the bones seemed to indicate that some sort of struggle had taken place, so it seemed plausible, and the hype around the mystery died down once again. Still, for the next few decades, nobody was really sure of who had died there or how.

Then, in 2004, the National Geographic Channel sent a team to investigate for their documentary Roopkund: The Skeleton Lake, and they came up with much more conclusive results. First, DNA testing found that among the roughly 200 bodies discovered, there were two distinct groups of people. It was theorized that a group of pilgrims, most likely a family attempting to cross the mountain, had hired local Mongolian people to accompany them on the journey. Second, the skeletons were much older than previously thought, and were estimated to have died around 1,200 years ago.

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Finally, they managed to rule out theories such as landslides, suicide, and violence by examining the nature of the victims’ injuries. The deceased had suffered numerous blunt traumas to their heads and shoulders, but there was a noticeable lack of injury elsewhere on the bodies, and no injuries consistent with stabbing or cutting that one would expect to find on a former battlefield. The people appeared to have succumbed to death after being pelted with large spheres, which is where local legend stepped in. Nearby people have a song about a group of travelers who made their way through the mountains, but did not respect the Goddess Nanda or her mountains, so she killed them with enormous hailstones and threw their bodies into the lake. The conclusion drawn by the National Geographic Channel and other scientists was that this “myth” was grounded in reality, and a freak storm of giant hailstones was indeed the cause of their demise.

Unfortunately, the site has not been properly excavated or protected, and when the ice melts every year, hundreds of tourists flock to see this macabre attraction, many of whom may nick a bone or skull for themselves. Although only 200 have been examined scientifically, scientists think that there may be as many as 600 skeletons hidden beneath the earth, ice, and snow of the surrounding areas.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Roopkund — The Skeleton Lake (Video)
India Today: Roopkund lake’s skeleton mystery solved (Photos)

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