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09 February 2014

The Skeleton Lake of Roopkund, India

When ice melts in the glacial tarn of Roopkund, located 5,000 metres above sea level in Chamoli district, Uttaranchal, hundreds of corpses can be seen floating. Thus gets exposed a mystery that dates back to more than 60 years and has begun to be understood only recently.

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In 1942, a forest guard chanced upon hundreds of skeletons at this tarn. The remains have intrigued anthropologists, scientists, historians and the local people ever since. Who were these people? What were they doing in the inhospitable regions of the Garhwal Himalaya?

Many speculated, initially, that the remains were those of Japanese soldiers who had sneaked into the area, and had then perished to the ravages of the inhospitable terrain.

Those were World War II times and even the slightest mention of a Japanese invasion was bound to throw the area’s British administrators into the tizzy.

The matter was investigated and the speculation was put to rest: the corpses were said to date back to at least a century. But nobody knew when exactly. Some British explorers to Roopkund, and many scholars attribute the bones to General Zorawar Singh of Kashmir, and his men, who are said to have lost their way and perished in the high Himalayas, on their return journey after the Battle of Tibet in 1841.

But radio-carbon tests on the corpses in the 1960s belied this theory. The tests vaguely indicated that the skeletons could date back to anytime between the 12th and 15th centuries ad. This led many historians to link the corpses to an unsuccessful attack by Mohammad Tughlak on the Garhwal Himalaya. Still others believed that the remains were of those of victims of an unknown epidemic. Some anthropologists also put forward a theory of ritual suicide.

Local folklore has it that in medieval times, king Jasdhawal of Kanauj wanted to celebrate the birth of an heir by undertaking a pilgrimage to the Nanda-Devi mountains in the Garhwal Himalaya. However, he disregarded the rules of pilgrimage by boisterous singing and dancing. The entourage earned the wrath of the local deity, Latu. They were caught in a terrible hailstorm and were thrown into the Roopkund lake.

Folklore is not all myth

Now the first forensic investigation of the frozen corpses has concurred with the hailstorm theory. Scientists commissioned by the National Geographic television channel to examine the corpses believe that they died from sharp blows to their skulls. “We retrieved a number of skulls which showed short, deep cracks,” said Subhash Walimbe, a physical anthropologist at the Deccan college, Pune. Walimbe was a member of the team that visited the site.

“The cracks were caused not by a landslide or an avalanche but by blunt, round objects about the size of cricket balls,” he surmised. According to Walimbe, “The only plausible explanation for so many people sustaining such similar injuries at the same time is something that fell from the sky. The injuries were all to the top of the skull and not to other bones in the body, so they must have come from above. Our view is that death was caused by extremely large hailstones”. Another member of the team, Wolfgang Sax, an anthropologist at Heidelberg University in Germany, cited a traditional song among Himalayan women that describes a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones “hard as iron”.

Though the numbers were not ascertained, remnants belonging to more than 300 people have been found. Radiocarbon dating of the bones at Oxford University's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit determined the time period to be AD 850 ±30 years.

Conservation concerns

There is a growing concern about the regular loss of skeletons and it is feared that, if steps are not taken to conserve them, the skeletons may gradually vanish in the years to come. It is reported that tourists visiting the area are in the habit of taking back the skeletons in large numbers and the district administration has expressed the need to protect the area. District Magistrate of Chamoli District has reported that tourists, trekkers and curious researchers are transporting the skeletons on mules and recommended that the area should be protected in the lines of Valley of flowers.The Government agencies have made efforts to develop the area as an eco-tourism destination, in an effort to protect the skeletons.

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Source:

1. http://www.roopkund.com/roopkund.htm
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roopkund

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