Roopkund, The Mystery Lake

Roopkund is one of the most beautiful and picturesque trekker’s destination of the Himalayan Kingdom. Nestled in between the ever vigilant Trishul and Nandaghunti, the Himalayan beauty is cuddled in the womb of the majestic Himalayas, at a height of over 5000 mtr. But the main attraction of the lake lies elsewhere. It carries in its depth, a mystery, which has intrigued the mind of thrill seekers of distant past and continues to do so even today. The lake achieved limelight ever since the discovery of hundreds of skeletons in and around the lake, in 1942, by a Forest ranger, H K Madhwal. Where did the skeletons come from? Carbon dating places them at around 12th century. There structure quite different from the aborigines of the area. Was it a royal pilgrimage or remnants of a vanquished army? Or is it some ghastly incident of a mass ritualistic suicide? Though without proper historical facts, the local ballads sing of a story, which is quite enthralling itself.


The story begins with the birth of, Nanda Devi the radiant progeny of the “Chanda” dynasty, in the Kumaon kingdom. As she came of age, the plaudits for her beauty and grace, travelled far and wide. Captivated by her, a king of “Rohilla” a tiny kingdom sent an ambassador to the Kumaon kingdom, seeking the kings blessing for the hand of her daughter. Angered by the audacity, the King of the Kumaon ousted the ambassador. The young King of Rohilla, aggrieved by the insult, attacked and subsequently defeated the Kumaon kingdom. Meanwhile, Nanda Devi, unknown to all, had already started for the Himalayas. Once there she immersed herself in rigorous penances. Pleased by her austracities, Lord Shiva accepted her as his bride. The alpine peak, which came to be Nanda’s abode, is the Nanda Ghunti. And the place of Nanda’s penance came to be known as “Nanda Kot” Finally, the divine weapon, vigilant at the entrance of “Nanda Ghunti”, The “Trishul”.

When men and women of flesh and blood, achieve immense feats, they become legends. And with time legends become gods. Nanda Devi was no different. She became the revered deity of the entire north India and the Himalayan kingdom. The kings of the “chanda” and the “katturi” dynasties, who were ardent followers of Nanda Devi, erected many temples in her name, in the Garhwal-Kumaon regions. The devotees of Nanda Devi celebrated The Nanda Devi Jat every year in the Nanda Devi temples spread across Garhwal and Kumaon. The festival commenced on the day earmarked for the Devi’s visit to her maika or parents’ home and culminates with the return to her husband’s home. The Choti Jat Yatra was celebrated at the end of August or early September, starting from Wan and ending at Bedini Bugiyal. Later in the 15th century AD, king Shesh pal of Chandragarhi combined all the Jats into one royal pilgrimage and started celebrating the farewell journey once in 12 years. Shesh Pal added the word “Raj (royal) in Nanda Jat” and announced the participation of royal family and royal priest in the journey. He instructed priests and patrons associated with this ancient tradition to assemble and put their heads together to draw a time schedule for the retinue to reach the scheduled spots on specific auspicious dates. The objective was to reach Home Kund on Nandashtami, falling sometime around August – September and Kulsari on the succeeding new moon for performing special rituals related to worshipping of the Goddess. After performing special worship of the other Goddesses-Bhumial Devi (Goddess Earth). Utrai Devi and Archan Devi – all popular deities of the region, he preserved a meticulous record of the Yatra programme to escort Goddess Nanda to her in-law’s place after every 12 years. He entrusted his royal priests residing at Nauti the responsibility to execute the Jat with the help of royal patronage and local people. The king also authorized his younger brother settled in the nearby village of Kansava to represent the royal house in this Yatra and help the priest perform all rites and rituals connected with this event. Mean while the Head priest, dreamt of a four horned ram, which will be born in a Kumaon village, and would guide the entourage to Lord Shiva’s home at the base of Trishul. Upon finding the auspicious ram, it was handed over to the head priest along with a specially made umbrella namely ”Ringol-Ki-Chatoli ” which wou¬ld be used to cover the palanquin of Nanda Devi, which housed an idol made of gold. Hence the journey started. The image of the Goddess and offerings are taken in a procession, accompanied by bare footed devotees. The followers observe self-control. Partaking of food prepared according to prescribed religious instructions only and participates in fervent rendition of devotional songs and dances.

Mystery Beyond The Skeleton Lake:

The story of Jasodawal.
Jasodawal was the king of Kannauj. His queen, Ballavah, who was from the Garhwal region, was a fervid devotee of Nanda Devi. For some reason the goddess got enraged with Ballavah, and as a result tumultuous misfortune befell the kingdom. With drought, famines and epidemics raging through the kingdom, the king sought out the help of the royal priests, who suggested the king partake in the “Raj Jat” in order to please the Goddess. The journey which was supposed to be done in immense sincerity and penance turned to merriment in the hands of Jasodawal. Instead of treading barefoot, he wore shoes. Instead of reverence and fasting he engaged in debauchery and gluttony. Even the royal dancers were for entertainment. This angered the deity so much that she turned the dancers to stone, forging the everlasting name “Pathar Nachuni” to the place, which is still present to date. In spite of these the journey continued. On reaching the shores of Roopkund, the entourage camped for the night. But the final straw was drawn, when queen Ballavah, who was pregnant, delivered a child, which was strictly forbidden while on “Raj Jat”. The Goddess was so enraged at the outsiders defiling her mountain sanctuary, that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones as hard as irons. The party wee no place to flee and there remains, still lie on the shores and in the depth of Roopkund.

Modern Interpretation
The immediate assumption (it being war time) was that these were the remains of Japanese soldiers who had died of exposure while sneaking through India. The British government, terrified of a Japanese land invasion, sent a team of investigators to determine if this was true. However upon examination they realized these bones were not from Japanese soldiers as they weren’t fresh enough. 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. Many historians linked 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 ritualistic suicide. But no one was able to provide any confirmed fact. For decades no light could be shed on the mystery.
However, a 2004 expedition to the site seems to have finally revealed the mystery of what caused those people’s deaths. The answer was stranger than anyone had guessed.
As it turns out, all the bodies date to around 850 AD. DNA evidence indicates that there were two distinct groups of people, one a family or tribe of closely related individuals, and a second smaller, shorter group of locals, likely hired as porters and guides. Rings, spears, leather shoes, and bamboo staves were found, leading experts to believe that the group was comprised of pilgrims heading through the valley with the help of the locals.
All the bodies had died in a similar way, from blows to the head. However, the short deep cracks in the skulls appeared to be the result not of weapons, but rather of something rounded. The bodies also only had wounds on their heads, and shoulders as if the blows had all come from directly above. As if hit by some massive hail stones. So is the legend of Nanda Devi true. Was Jasodawal really the cursed king? It’s a mystery which still remains unanswered.




An ardent traveller, this ex engineer has been a child of the mountains from early childhood. With the passion of mountaineering running in the veins, he has been instrumental in the operation and running of WeTrekkers. As a trek leader has successfully completed various batches at Roopkund, Hampta Pass, Bamsaru, Sandakphu, Pindari and many more.