Tucked away in the desolate, snow-covered Himalayas lies a pristine lake with skulls and bones scattered on its shores.
First discovered in 1942 by a wandering forest guard, this graveyard at nearly 16,500 ft remains frozen over for much of the year, but reveals its dark secrets in the brief summer, between June and mid-October.
The bones are believed to date back to some time between the 12th and 15th centuries AD, with some tests putting them as far back as the 1st century AD. Most show signs of skull fracture, as if the deceased had been hit with blunt, round objects, each about the size of a cricket ball.
Scientists who have studied the remains suspect that the group was caught and killed in a hailstorm, trapped on the icy Himalayan slopes, with no shelter from the onslaught.
Over time, landslides pushed the bodies into the otherwise pristine Roopkund Lake at the base of the Trisul and Nanda Gunti peaks in Uttarakhand.
Remains of jewellery are still found scattered among the skeletons.
DNA tests have revealed several distinct groups of people among the 500-odd skeletons, including a group of short people, probably local porters, and a taller group with DNA mutations characteristic of the Kokanastha Brahmins of Maharashtra.
These lonely victims were most likely pilgrims headed to the Nanda Devi mountain, revered as the abode of Nanda, the Hindu goddess of Bliss. Also known as Raj Jat or Royal Pilgrimage, this arduous trek is undertaken by local villagers every 12 years, along a path that passes by Roop-kund Lake.
It is believed that, in medieval times, King Jasidhwal of Kanauj first made this pilgrimage to celebrate the imminent birth of his first child.
However, with utter disregard for the rules of pilgrimage, Jasidhwal took along a troupe of dancers and some soldiers, refused to walk barefoot — and was accompanied by his pregnant wife, who eventually gave birth on the holy mountain.
Legend has it, Nanda Devi was so enraged that a woman had polluted her holy abode that she rained large hailstones on the group and killed them.
That, of course, is legend. But it is still intriguing to think, as you make the six-day trek to the lake, that the remains you are about to see could be those of a careless young prince, his wife, baby and favourite courtiers — their lives cut short by a raging mountain goddess.
The climb to Roopkund starts at the Lohajung mountain pass, 8,800 ft above sea level. The trail crosses crystal-clear, icy streams as it makes its way up to the hamlet of Didina, perched on the edge of the mountain. Opt for a homestay here, where you can sit by a fire with the family, sipping sweet, milky tea as you watch the evening paint a riot of colour across the snowy landscape.
Next, the trail leads through a forest of towering oaks until suddenly the dense canopy disappears and you step onto a stunning carpet of emerald green spread out under a brilliant blue sky. This is Bedni Bugyal, a picturesque campsite dotted with colourful wild flowers, with the mighty Trisul and Nanda Gunti peaks in the background.
It’s a gradual two-day climb from here to the high camp of Bhagwabasa. Soon, the effect of the thin air begins to kick in and every few steps leave you gasping for breath.
Finally, you turn a corner and there it is, the clear turquoise waters of mesmerising Roopkund.
You forget your sore muscles and aching lungs and marvel at the hushed tranquility, the circle of snow-capped peaks and the clear blue water.
And you think it wouldn’t be the worst place for an eternal rest.