Why Is Roopkund Lake Full Of Hundreds Of Skeletons?
Let's find out why this Himalayan lake is full of hundreds of skeletons and investigate other mysterious lakes!Mysteries
Deep in the Himalayan mountains of India, some 16,500 feet above sea level, lies a mysterious lake known as Roopkund. This remote body of water is nestled below a steep slope on one of India’s tallest mountains, and its frigid waters harbor a dark secret that’s haunted experts for decades.
Just below the surface are hundreds of human skeletons! How did they get there? What could’ve possibly caused the demise of all those people? Let's unravel the mystery of Roopkund Lake.
Our story begins back in 1942. While the world was at war, an Indian forest ranger named Hari Kishan Madhwal was enjoying some relative peace as he conducted a routine patrol of the Himalayan mountains.
That is, until he stumbled across a deep valley he’d never noticed before. Despite the heavy snow, he could make something out at the bottom of it. Intrigued, the lone wanderer fought through the storm and made his way down. As he got closer, he realized he was looking at a small glacial lake.
Upon reaching the edge, however, a chill ran up Madhwal’s spine that he couldn’t blame on the cold. There, staring grimly back up at him through the icy waters, was a skeletal face! His heart racing, Madhwal glanced away at a different part of the lake and gasped. No matter where he looked, he was greeted with more human skulls.
The skeletal fragments weren’t confined to the water either; some lay scattered on the shore around it. Madhwal didn’t need any more evidence that something was horribly wrong about this place. With a start, he sprinted back up the valley and down the mountain to tell anyone who’d listen. Since then, Roopkund Lake has been one of the most widely contested mysteries ever known.
Because it was discovered during World War II, the skeletons were initially feared to be the remains of enemy soldiers. People were worried the Japanese were attempting an invasion through the mountains and that some infantry had gotten lost on the way and ended up in the lake.
However, it turns out, the bones were far too old to be Axis forces. In fact, they were hundreds of years too old; though, eerily, some of them still had flesh and hair attached to them, even after all that time. They weren’t zombies, the high altitude and freezing temperatures had just preserved them incredibly well.
Indeed, Roopkund Lake is frozen for most of the year, but when the ice thaws and the snow melts, the water’s spooky secrets bubble to the surface. Over 800 bodies are thought to be lying there. While obviously not Japanese soldiers, some people reckoned it could be the remains of a far older army, a group of Indian soldiers who’d tried to invade Tibet during the Dogra–Tibetan War in 1841.
They’d failed, and after being forced to retreat had tried to cut through the icy mountains and back home. A grave mistake. Alone in the Himalayas, the unprepared soldiers quickly succumbed to the harsh conditions, their remains ultimately tumbling down the mountains and ending up in Roopkund. Or, at least, that’s how the theory went.
It too was quickly disproven. Aside from a single spearhead, nobody could find evidence of any weapons. On top of this, the bones belonged to both men and women and, at the time, only men were allowed in the army to fight.
It's understandable why locals refer to Roopkund as “The Mystery Lake”! But what if all those people didn’t just “end up” in the lake, what if the lake itself was somehow responsible for their fate? Some lakes can be unbelievably dangerous.
For instance, acidic ones. Ordinary lakes can be transformed into these rare bodies of water by nearby volcanic activity. When a volcano erupts it releases corrosive gases like hydrogen sulfide, and if these spread through a lake they can cause the pH levels to drop as low as 0.1, making the water stronger than battery acid!
If you dipped a toe in, it wouldn’t immediately strip you, flesh to bone, but it’d severely burn you. And if you were to fall all the way in, it could very easily spell bye-bye before you made it back to shore! However, that can't explain the mystery of Roopkund because if the water was so acidic, all those skeletons wouldn't have lasted hundreds of years in it.
As the years since Madhwal’s grisly discovery grew longer, the list of possible explanations grew with them. Some people thought the skeletons belonged to unfortunate foragers who’d been trying to gather a special mushroom that grows in the area.
Others disregarded this and subscribed to a more brutal alternative, that Roopkund was the site of some sort of ritual sacrifice. Shrines along a trail that leads to the lake have inscriptions on them that hint at this theory, but aside from those, there isn’t any other evidence. And there’s practically none to support the mushroom idea.
A more likely explanation is that the lake was a burial ground for victims of an epidemic. This makes more sense. In times of plague, people around the world used to dispose of bodies in a similar manner. And Roopkund is so isolated that it’d be perfect. Even today, there are no roads that lead to it and it’s a grueling three-day hike to get there.
But just as people started to think they’d got the answer, a startling new twist threw yet another spanner in the works. As more skulls were fished out of the lake, scientists noticed something very odd. Some of them had short, deep, rounded cracks in them unlike those made by any known weapon or disease.
The nearest villagers had their own explanation for the strange fractures. Their people have been on Hindu pilgrimages around the area for centuries, and one path takes them right past Roopkund and high above it, along treacherous terrain. The arduous pilgrimage is only undertaken once every 12 years and honors the goddess Nanda Devi.
As such, anyone that embarks on it is expected to respect the rules. Locals believe a medieval king undertook this very journey with his wife to celebrate their child’s coming birth. But, against the rules of the pilgrimage, the king refused to walk barefoot and brought soldiers and dancers with him.
On top of this, his wife had the cheek to give birth during the trek, and that was the last straw for Nanda Devi. Supposedly, the enraged deity struck down the pilgrims with great “iron balls from the sky,” leaving their lifeless bodies on the path above the lake.
Time passed, the bodies became bones, and the bones eventually slipped down into the water below. Although this fanciful tale is probably heavily exaggerated, that doesn’t mean it isn’t based on truth. As well as skeletons, parasols, and bangles have also been found in the lake, both of which are traditional items taken by pilgrims honoring Nanda Devi.
And “iron balls from the sky” could refer to some kind of storm. But what storm would rain iron balls? What if they weren’t really iron at all; what if they were ice? In other words, hail; golf ball-sized, giant hail. It’s not unheard of even today, and it’s super dangerous.
Whether the hail finished the pilgrims off or not though, the confusion and panic of the storm certainly would have. Just one slip and you could easily tumble down the valley into the freezing lake below, where hypothermia or starvation would do the rest.
While it’s generally accepted that giant hail is to blame for some of the skeletons in the lake, the idea that it’s the reason for all of them just doesn’t hold water. For starters, only a few out of the hundreds of skulls had circular cracks in them, certainly not enough for them all to have been caught in a storm.
Furthermore, the remains in the lake aren’t the result of just one incident. The bones are from different time periods, spanning a whopping thousand years! The oldest ones were carbon dated to around 800 AD and the most recent at 1800 AD. And further studies of the bones revealed they didn’t just belong to Indians.
Instead, they’re part of a diverse group of different ethnicities, so they couldn’t all have been going on Hindu pilgrimages! Some of them even belonged to people from as far away as the eastern Mediterranean, meaning they’d traveled to Roopkund all the way from Greece! Back in the 17th and 19th centuries, when these Mediterranean bones were dated from, there were no planes or cars.
So, this would’ve been a tremendously long and arduous journey for anybody to undertake. Why on earth would anyone travel almost 4,000 miles on foot to see a strange little secluded lake in the mountains? And how had they even heard about it to do so?
It’s possible that the site held significance for a lot more people than just the Hindus. After all, the lake does have a certain mystical aura about it, tucked away and frozen at the bottom of a mountainous valley.
If it really did hold that much significance though, there’d be something written about it! As it stands, historians haven’t found a single mention of the lake in any document before the skeletons’ discovery. The records could’ve been lost to time, but if the lake was really famous enough to pull people from all around the world, wouldn’t there at least be one mention of it somewhere?
A more likely explanation is that the Greeks didn’t travel that far at all, they were already in the country! The Greeks actually had a kingdom in India for about 200 years, starting in 180 BC! That’s way before our skeletal pals supposedly lived, but it’s entirely possible that the ancient Indo-Greeks passed their DNA onto further generations who outlived the fall of the kingdom.
These people may have had Greek ancestry but still practiced Hinduism, and so might’ve traveled past Roopkund on pilgrimage after all! Even if they weren’t pilgrims, they could feasibly have still visited. The mountains would’ve been an enticing source of adventure for those brave enough to scale them, but the unprepared may never have made it back down.
Ultimately, as unsatisfying as it might be, we just don’t know for sure. Roopkund remains a mystery to this very day. There’s a running joke among those who make the trek that one wrong step could add another skeleton to the waters.
Even so, scientists continue to study the lake, hoping to figure out once and for all what the heck happened there. But there’s still a long way to go. And tourists haven’t exactly been helpful either. Though I doubt anyone swims in the freezing, eerie waters, visitors have been known to disturb the site and even take bones home with them.
Regardless, we’ll eventually get to the bottom of it. New discoveries are being made all the time; it was only as recently as 2019 that scientists realized some of the bones were Mediterranean, and they only tested a few of the skeletons! So, with more in-depth research, who knows what revelations are waiting around the corner?
If you thought Roopkund was weird though, hold onto your hats. Our planet is home to a whole ton of mysterious, fascinating, and downright bizarre bodies of water. So, let’s dive straight into some others!
As creepy as Roopkund Lake is, there’s something even eerier about giant bodies of water; that creeping dread they give off that something might be lurking inside them. In the depths of Southern Siberia sits just such a lake, Lake Baikal, and it’s the deepest freshwater lake on the planet, at over 5,000 ft.
That means if you swam to the bottom and stacked 16 Statues of Liberty on top of one another, they still wouldn’t touch the surface! In fact, the vast lake contains around 20% of all the Earth’s unfrozen fresh surface water. It’s so massive you can see it from space!
So, all manner of beasties could be lurking in its dark depths. Legend has it that a “water dragon” dwells beneath the surface looking for unwary fishermen to drag down to its underwater kingdom. Some locals are so firm in this belief that they’ve even made offerings to the monster in the form of jewelry, food, and blood.
As if a murderous underwater dragon wasn’t terrifying enough, there are also rumors that aliens have taken up residence in the lake! There have been an unusual number of sightings in and around its waters. One of the most famous was in 1982 when a team of military divers went exploring the depths of Baikal.
While swimming through the murk, they supposedly stumbled across a group of horrifyingly tall humanoid beings in silver suits. The divers gave chase, but in the ensuing chaos three of them never made it out and a further four were seriously injured. Also, some say that scientists researching the lake discovered strange tracks at the bottom, from a vehicle that doesn’t exist!
When you make the decision to buy a new car, what do you do with the old one? You could sell it, scrap it for parts, or dump it in a gigantic lake. It seems Italy’s Lake Como is the favorite vacation spot for those who fall into the third category.
That’s because it plays host to a weirdly huge number of submerged vehicles. There’s everything from classic cars to WWII tanks! And it’s not just cars you can find down there either, the lake is also filled with sunken ships, weaponry, and even unexploded bombs.
Some people think the random relics were left by criminal gangs looking to dispose of evidence. At a whopping 56 square miles, the lake’s so colossal that it’d be tough to find anything specific in there. But as most criminals don’t go around stealing old WWII tanks, those were probably dumped by German soldiers after the war ended.
According to rumors, inanimate objects aren’t the only things that call Lake Como home, though. An extinct marine reptile called Lariosaurus apparently hides in the lake’s mysterious caves. At just two feet long, it’d be pretty easy to miss in the vastness of the water. Even so, the chances of a 235-million-year-old prehistoric reptile existing at all are kind of slim.
Lake Como has one tiny island off its western shores and the holy grail itself apparently had a stint there back in the 6th century! A legendary cup said to grant miraculous healing powers or even eternal youth to those who drink from it, many people have scoured the island to find it. None have succeeded.
Some believe that after enemy troops invaded Italy at the start of the 7th century, the grail was moved for its own safety. But who knows? Maybe it’s still there today.
Imagine a strange, dark body of thick black goop, its surface bubbling and hissing as though it were full of snakes. Unsettling, right? Though it may sound like something straight out of a horror movie, it’s actually very real.
Just outside the town of La Brea in Trinidad sits Pitch Lake. Long ago, locals believed the lake to be hell itself. Others thought its constant movement and the bizarre noises it makes meant it was a living, breathing creature. They were both wrong.
This dark mass is actually made of 10 million tons of hot, liquid asphalt. The noises and movements are caused by its heating, bubbling, and cooling throughout the day. Asphalt is the stuff roads are made from, and Pitch Lake has been used to make whole lotta roads, it’s the largest natural asphalt deposit in the world!
But how exactly did this place come to be? People reckon the lake was formed because of two great big cracks in the earth beneath it. Oil from deep underground got channeled up through these cracks and formed a deep pool on the surface.
Then, the hot sun heated the oil to the point that its lighter elements evaporated, leaving only the heaviest, densest part behind. That part is asphalt!
The lake itself may not be alive, but astonishingly some creatures do call it home! Specially adapted microorganisms thrive in the incredibly harsh environment, and could hold the key to discovering whether life exists in similar lakes on Saturn’s moon, Titan!
Not that these microbes are the only thing enjoying a dip. During the rainy season, pools of water form on top of the asphalt that locals bathe in. According to them, the pools are ‘fountains of life’ capable of curing a whole host of ailments.
Pink Lake Hillier
Most of the time, water doesn’t look very exciting. On the south coast of Western Australia, however, lies an utterly fantastical body of water that looks like it’s straight out of a fairy tale. Its name is Lake Hillier, and though this mini marvel is only a couple of thousand feet long, its incredible pink color makes it stand strikingly against the landscape around it.
Does anybody else want to drink it? If you did, you’d be in for a gross surprise. Rather than a strawberry milkshake, scientists think the vibrant pink shade is caused by microorganisms in the lake. Thousands of colorful algae and bacteria live in the waters, and together the cocktail of colors has turned the pool a vibrant pink!
Hillier isn’t the only pink lake in the world, but they are rare. This is because the microorganisms that give Hillier its color can only live in super specific, incredibly salty environments, that not many lakes can provide! Unlike others like it though, Hillier’s intense pinkness stays all year round.
There are some places you should never swim, like this next lake in Dominica. The outskirts of the waters reach a staggering 197 °F, which is already near boiling point. And we don’t even know how hot the center of the lake is because it’s too dangerous for anyone to try and test! Fittingly then, it’s known as Boiling Lake.
Technically though, it’s not a lake, it’s a flooded fumarole. Fumaroles are cracks in the earth that hot volcanic gases from deep underground rise up and escape out of. Rainfall combined with a couple of streams keeps the one in Dominica full of water, while the hot gases beneath boil the water, creating the steaming pool we see today!
Tourists often enjoy boiling eggs in its off-shoot streams or puddles, but as fun as that might sound, I’ll stick to using a pan, thanks. Much less chance of ending up in a scalding, watery grave!
Mind you, the lake isn’t always super-hot, sometimes it’s like a nice warm bath! Which is exactly why it’s so dangerous. The temperature can fluctuate so fast that your spa day can quickly turn into a horror day. So, unsurprisingly, swimming is absolutely forbidden.
If you were amazed at these lakes you might want to read our article about the most mysterious lakes in the world, our series about places you should never swim, and our article about dangerous lakes. Thanks for reading!