Roopkund (locally known as Mystery Lake) is a high altitude glacial lake in the Uttarakhand state of India. It lies in the lap of Trishul massif and is famous for the hundreds of human skeletons found at the edge of the lake. The area is uninhabited, located in the Himalayas at an altitude of 5,029 metres (16,499 feet). Surrounded by rock-strewn glaciers and snow-clad mountains, the lake is a popular trekking destination.
A shallow lake, having a depth of about two metres, Roopkund has attracted attention because of the human skeletal remains that are visible at its bottom when the snow melts. Many theories and opinions exist, from purely spiritual to scientific ones, attempting to explain the existence of these skeletons, which date back to 9th century CE. Because of the human remains, the lake has been called Skeleton Lake in recent times.
The human skeletons were rediscovered in 1942 by a Nanda Devi game reserve ranger H K Madhwal, although there are reports about these bones from the late 19th century. The skeletons are visible in the clear water of the shallow lake during a one-month period, when the ice melts. Along with the skeletons, wooden artifacts, iron spearheads, leather slippers, and rings were also found. When a team from National Geographic magazine retrieved about 30 skeletons, flesh was still attached to some of them. Geneticist Neeraj Rai at Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad conducted DNA tests on a hundred samples from the lake and compared them to the current Indian population. Results indicated that 70% of them had an affinity with Iran, while the remaining belonged to the local population. It is hypothesized that the Iran group took the help of local porters to seek a new land for settlement. Later studies placed the time of mass death around the 9th century AD (1200 years old).
The local legend says that the king of Kanauj, Raja Jasdhaval, with his pregnant wife, Rani Balampa, their servants, a dance troupe and others went on a pilgrimage to Nanda Devi shrine, and the group faced a storm with large hailstones, from which the entire party perished near Roopkund lake.
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. The Anthropological Survey of India conducted a study of the skeletons during the 1950s and some samples are displayed at the Anthropological Survey of India Museum, Dehradun.
Roopkund is a picturesque and beautiful tourist destination and one of the important places for trekking in Chamoli District, Himalayas, located near the base of two Himalayan peaks: Trisul (7120 m) and Nanda Ghunti (6310 m). A religious festival is held at the alpine meadow of Bedni Bugyal every autumn with nearby villages participating. A larger celebration, the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, takes place once every twelve years at Roopkund, during which Goddess Nanda is worshipped. Roopkund lake is covered with ice for most of the time during the year. However, the journey to Roopkund is an enjoyable experience. All along the way, one is surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides.
There are different routes for a trek to Roopkund. Generally, trekkers and adventurers travel to Lohajung or Wan by road. From there, they climb a hillock at Wan and reach Ran ki Dhar, where a flat area allows for overnight camping. If the sky is clear, one can see Trishul Parvat from Bedini Bugyal. The next camping spot is at Bedini Bugyal, which is 12–13 km from Wan. There is a huge grazing ground for mules, horses and sheep. There are two temples and a small lake that add to the beauty of this place. One can see many Himalayan peaks from Bedini Bugyal bridge. Trekkers then go up to Bhagwabasa, which is 10–11 km from Bedini Bugyal. The climate at Bhagwabasa is hostile for most of the year. One gets a closer view of Trishul and other peaks higher than 5000 metres. Many waterfalls and landslides are visible on the extreme slopes of the surrounding mountains. From Bhagwabasa, trekkers either go to Roopkund and return, or go to Shila Samundra (Ocean of Stones) via Junargalli Col Pass, which is just above the lake, and then proceed to Homkund.