Updated Sunday, December 1st, 2013.
In 1942, a British forest guard was exploring a remote area of in the Himalayan Mountains in India, called Roopkund, when he made a grisly discovery, a lake surrounded by hundreds of skeletons. Due to it’s altitude of about three miles above sea level, and location in the Himalayan mountains, the ice around Roopkund Lake only melts about one month of the year and is only accessible via an arduous hike into the mountains. As the ice melted, and even more skeletal remains were exposed in and around the lake, the British guard thought the bones belonged to Japanese soldiers who tried to invade India during the war. But upon closer examination he discovered that the bones were much older than originally thought. Since then people have speculated these individuals died during a landslide or were part of a mass suicide. But no one ever really knew for sure.
So who were these people? What killed them?
In 2004 a scientific expedition sought to answer these questions. As the team was collecting their data, they found found some of the bodies beneath the ice were so well preserved that they still had hair and skin, and were wearing clothing and jewelry. The team conducted radiocarbon and DNA testing on the estimated 200 individuals and found they all died around 850 AD, and belonged to two distinct groups of people, a family or tribe of closely related individuals who were tall, and a relatively shorter group.
The scientific team argued that the presence of jewelry, weapons, and shoes suggested that the related/taller group was comprised of pilgrims moving through the valley with the help of the shorter, local porters. Researchers believe that a large family/tribe was traveling to the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, that takes place every twelve years at Roopkund, during which Goddess Nanda is worshipped.
But who or what killed them? Forensic experts examined the skulls and found that no matter their stature or location around the lake, each individual had fractures in their skull. Each blow left a short, deep skull fracture, consistent with a round object. Also, there were only injuries on the bones of the upper body (the head and shoulders), which indicated that the blows came from directly above.
Due to the position and size of the wounds on the skeletons, the scientists excluded avalanche, landslide, and weapons as the culprits. They concluded that the hundreds of travelers and their guides died from a sudden, freak hailstorm. The scientists were able to estimate the size of the hail from the skull fractures, and determined that the hail stones had roughly the same diameter as a baseball. Hail is rarely deadly, but these 9th century pilgrims were trapped in the Roopkund valley without protection from the volleys of massive balls of ice that were powerful enough to crack open skulls and fracture bones. The bodies decomposed where they fell, frozen in time for the next 1,200 years until their discovery in 1942.
Though this may sound unbelievable, hail this size is not unknown the region. In January of 2013 a hailstorm killed 9 people in India. In 2002, 22 people were killed by hailstorm in China. Just a couple of weeks ago, Australia was battered by hail the size of pool balls, you can see pics of that hail here.
This forensic explanation supports local Himalayan legend about the doomed caravan. According to Himalayan folklore, a king and his wife from Kannauj were on a pilgrimage to the Nanda Devi Raj Jat. The king and his entourage, including dancers and musicians, passed through land scared to Goddess Nanda Devi, despite local customs strictly forbidding passage. The Goddess was so upset my the slight that she assailed the pilgrims with hail as they were passing by the lake, killing them immediately.
According to The Daily Beast, because this area is starting gather more attention, tourists are stealing so many bones from around the lake that “only a few remain.” And because it’s so remote, local officials find it difficult to protect the area and the skeletal remains in and around the lake.
Here is footage of the Skeleton Lake at Roopkund. There isn’t any narration, but it gives you idea of how this lake’s isolation and how it could go undiscovered for centuries.
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