US

The ancient mystery of the Himalayan ‘Skeleton Lake’

US
By SG
Fri, 08, 20

A popular local folk song tells the story of a disrespectful group of pilgrims travelling to the nearby Hindu shrine of the mountain goddess Nanda Devi....

BITS 'N' PIECES

During the Second World War, in a remote valley deep in the Himalayas, an Indian forest ranger named Hari Kishan Madhwal made morbid discovery. At an elevation of 4,800m, he came across a small glacial lake, with something strange visible in its clear water. The lake was full of human skeletons. He had discovered the now infamous Lake Roopkund, or ‘skeleton lake’. The authorities feared the remains belonged to a group of Japanese soldiers who tried to infiltrate British-controlled India. However, it turned out the roughly 500 skeletons were too old to be Japanese invaders. In the decades since, a variety of theories have tried to explain the mysterious origins of the bones. Some have said the remains were those of an ancient Indian army, returning across the mountains from battle. Others have suggested an epidemic was responsible for the dead.

An intense hail storm has also been blamed. A popular local folk song tells the story of a disrespectful group of pilgrims travelling to the nearby Hindu shrine of the mountain goddess Nanda Devi. Incensed by their behaviour, the goddess is said to have hurled balls ‘as hard as iron’ at the deviants. Some of the bones have signs of trauma consistent with being hit by a round object. No weapons were found, but bits of religious jewellery and clothing were. The skeletons were a mix of men, women and children in good health, meaning warfare and epidemic were unlikely. Thus, researchers concluded that the dead were probably pilgrims of South Asian origin that died in the ninth Century. However, a recent DNA sample of 38 skeletons showed they came from three genetically distinct groups. 23 had ancestry related to people from present day India. One had South East Asian ancestry. And most shockingly, 14 had eastern Mediterranean origins.

This could be explained by the existence of a Graeco-Indo kingdom in the area between the first and second Centuries BC. However, carbon dating concluded that none of the bones are from this period.

Those with South Asian ancestry date from a variety of different events between the seventh and 10th Centuries, while those of Mediterranean origins date from one event in the 18th Century. The differences and timing also suggest that the causes of death were likely varied. It is possible that the lake was actually a makeshift graveyard, which would explain the diversity of the bones. Ultimately, there is still no conclusive evidence explaining how the skeletons of Roopkund came to be. Every year, with the arrival of spring, the frozen lake melts once again, revealing the bones but not their origin. For now, the mystery of Skeleton Lake prevails.

- Compiled by SG