I struggled quite a bit with this piece. Should I give a blow by blow account? Should I stick to the emotional roller coaster and the gamut of experiences?
Then, my son during bedtime asked me to tell him the story of Roopkund, and I thought, well why not?
So here comes a story – of a king and a queen, of a goddess’s wrath and majestic mountains and a mirror like lake containing in its womb thousands of human skeletons!
Welcome to the story of our trek – a trek to the ‘Mystery Lake’ – Roopkund.
Our journey started from Bangalore-Delhi-Kathagodam-Loharjung. Loharjung was our first base camp and this where the ancient legend begins too…
It is said that Mata Parvati fought with the mighty demon Lohasur at this very place for more than a year. After a tough and drawn out battle, Lohasur was vanquished and Shiv and Parvati moved ahead.
We too moved ahead from Loharjung to Didna village. It was a steep ascent in the later part and was a true test of will and stamina for all trekkers.
Didna is a quaint village with just a couple of houses as far as our eye could see. The house we stayed in was the most beautiful, coziest, darling little house. Blue shutters and awnings and bright blue doors against the stone walls and the sloping stone tiled roofs, added to the rustic charm!
We had some simple but tasty food and had loads of fun playing dumb-charades. As the sun began to set, the chill in the air was much more noticeable and it almost seemed to say to us – “welcome to the mountains!”.
Didna Village to Ali Bugyal
Bugyals are meadows and Ali Bugyal is one of the largest in South Asia. It was rainy in patches, but the scenery and the rolling stretch of green meadows were unbelievably beautiful. It felt awesome to be above the clouds, which would now and then manage to come up above us, shower their blessings on us and then move way as gracefully.
Ali Bugyal to Patar Nachauni via Bedni Bugyal and Ghora Lotani
Mata Parvati on the same path, decided to take a breather on a rock. But she was invisible to the lesser mortals. A shepherd decided to throw the smallish looking rock away, as it was blocking his path. But try as he may, he could not lift it! Only after he sent out a heartfelt prayer to Durga (believed to be another form of the Goddess Parvati) , was he able to move the stone.
There is a small Durga mandir, made of some roughly assembled stones nearby and many of our team tried lifting the rock. Only a few were successful! It is said that one’s wish would be granted if they could lift the stone. I will need to cross check with the fellas to see if their wishes did come true?!
Now, its not just us, trying to follow the divine footsteps. Remember, the Raja and Rani that we spoke about at the start of the story, they were on the same trail too. Raja Jasdhaval, the king of Kanauj, was traveling with his pregnant wife, Rani Balampa. They were accompanied by servants, a dance troupe, and others as they traveled on a pilgrimage to Nanda Devi shrine, for the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, which takes place every twelve years.
Little did they know that the divine couple were just ahead of them.
The Raja decided to entertain himself and his soldiers and asked three of his dancers to put up a show. The goddess angered at this display of cavalier attitude, simply pulled in the three nachnias to pathal – the underworld and hence the place gets the name ‘Patar Nachauni‘!
I still think it was misplaced anger!? Wasn’t it the Raja’s idea??
We clearly are able to see three sudden depressions in a raised piece of flat land…whether or not believe the legend is unto you!
Patar Nachauni to Bhagwabasa via Kalu Vinayak
From here, us – the trek team, the Raja and his Parivar and the gods, all of course in different timelines move onto Bhagwabasa via Kalu Vinayak.
Kalu Vinayak shrine is a reminder of the famous story of how Vinayak got his elephant head and how Lord Shiva granted him the right of worship before any other god. It is all supposed to have happened here!
From here the snowline starts. The chill is definitely more pronounced. We begin to see patches of snow in the far distance.
Near the Kalu Vinayak shrine, is a small tarpaulin tent in which an old man sells maggi and tea. I waited for my black tea here, for quite some time, after the other trekkers had left. It was definitely worth the wait! The tea powered me enough to reach the Bhagwabasa camp at the same time as the others!
Like any other normal couple, the divine beings have their spats and ego and vanity too. Shiva asked Parvati to let go of her vehicle, the tiger as he was doing the walking all by himself. So Parvati left her tiger in a cave and this place came to be known as the ‘abode of the tiger’ or BhagwaBasa! Gokul, one of our guides who is the source of all these tales, told us that after this point no big cats or animals can be found!
The Bhagwabasa camp is filled with flat stones and is bone numbingly cold. The tents were pitched on these rocks and only because of Nagu, our superwoman tent mate, were we spared a bad back ache in the morning!
She as usual managed to reach the camp site first and found the best tent of the lot!
A lot of clickety clack of cameras later, we had our acclimatization walk and it was here that Gokul narrated the stories.
From our camp, we could see the formidable looking Trishul mountain and the treacherous path that we were expected to navigate the next day to reach Roopkund lake.
Our trek lead, Tara showed us a trough formed just below Mt. Trishul, where Roopkund was nestled.
Bhagwabasa to Roopkund to Patar Nachauni
We woke up at 3 AM the next day and after eating a very watery maggi noodle – soup..sorta mush, got ready to complete the journey that had started in Bangalore.
I had had a misadventure with the samosas the previous day and as a result had some stomach issues. One of the trekkers offered me norflox, but the poor soul in the limited light, had given a wide spectrum antibiotic – Oflox, which rather worked out well for me, as I faced absolutely no stomach issues during the climb and back!
The climb was all that it had promised to be. It was tough, demanding and scary in parts.
We were also given crampons to help us walk on the snow. We had to finish our climb up and down before the sunlight could start melting the snow. Melted snow becomes soft and pudgy and extremely difficult and dangerous to walk on!
We moved like a well oiled machine on those narrow tracks. Never breaking ranks and always together. For me, it was emotional at times and meditative at others. I did not speak or look ahead but just concentrated on keeping the next step and then the next…
Tara’s well intention-ed taunts and jokes all fell on deaf ears, as we climbed what was to me the most difficult summit climb that I had done so far…
As we reached the cusp of the summit where we could see the glimmering Roopkund, shouts of joy, whoops of victory broke out everywhere. There were a lot of tears too! I was crying! This had to be one of the best parts of what had been a very difficult year for me. The humbling experience, once again brought to fore how minuscule ‘I’ was.
In another age, in another time, Parvati before heading off to kailash (Mt. Trishul) wanted a mirror, to do her sola-sringar! Shivji never did anything small scale now, did he? He stuck his trishul into the ground and out sprang an oval pond with crystal clear water, where the divine lady satisfied her vanity! Hence the name – Roop Kund — the Beauty lake!
Now the Raja and his troop weren’t going to miss out on all this action, were they?! They followed the couple. The goddess was angered at all this hoopla and encroachment on divine territory. She rained hail stones, as big as iron balls which cracked open the skulls of all the soldiers. The king and queen perished and tragically the unborn child passed away too… I asked Gokul to repeat the last part, hoping that the story would somehow end differently, that at least the queen and the child would be spared…but that was not to be. (I did change the ending for my li’l one though!)
The skeletons can still be seen strewn around the lake and can be seen inside of the lake as well. (However, the lake was frozen when we trekked. It melts only in the November-September time frames.)
Women weren’t allowed on these mountain ranges for a lot of centuries, but of course things have changed.
Now scientists have found that 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. What had killed them all, porter and pilgrim alike?
Among Himalayan women there is an ancient and traditional folk song. The lyrics describe a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones “hard as iron.” After much research and consideration, the 2004 expedition came to the same conclusion. All the people died from a sudden and severe hailstorm.
Trapped in the valley with nowhere to hide or seek shelter, the “hard as iron” cricket ball-sized [about 23 centimeter/9 inches diameter] hailstones came by the thousands, resulting in the travelers’ bizarre sudden death. The remains lay in the lake for 1,200 years until their discovery!
The descent was somehow much more difficult than the ascent. It scared me out of my wits to see the path in broad daylight. I am just glad I did not see it well in the early morning or I might have never made the climb😉
We came to our base camp at Bhagwabasa, had a quick lunch, packed our bags and started the long descent back to Patar Nachauni. I was physically and more so mentally exhausted. The climb down was slow and painful. We also got caught in a hailstorm but it was sorta pretty, to see small pearls dropping down on us every where!
Patar Nachauni to Lohajung via Bedni and Wan
This was the toughest descent yet. My toes were screaming to come out of my shoes. The 20 odd kilometers downhill gave us all blisters and frustrating moments galore.
The only relief was the serene and cool waters of the Neelganga. We kicked off our shoes and as one of my friends’ put it, we could almost feel the steam coming off our tired, blistered feet, as we immersed them in the Neelganga.
We had our lunch here, clicked quite a few artsy type of photographs as well. I also managed to gather a few small and colorful stones for my son.
I was very thankful for the ascent that came next. It provided much needed relief to my toes but pretty soon another long stretch of descent started. This was pure, unadulterated pain. But we all made it to the spot in Wan village where vehicles were waiting to take us to Loharjung.
Another hour’s drive and we were in a guest house, with running water and modern toilets and a promise of hot water to come!
Treks enforce life lessons like nothing else can! The things like running water and all the modern amenities that we take for granted, are unavailable on a trek. It teaches one, the value of natural resources, it teaches and renews your trust in human beings.
Money is no scale to measure the help and guidance that the trek leads and guides give us on the journey.The money in your pocket will mean nothing on a trek if there isn’t another human to help you out!
The Roopkund trail is a well traversed one, however the local guides and trek leads make every effort to create awareness and the trail is amazingly clean. No plastic, no litter!
There are so many more things that I still want to write about – the wonderful camaraderie, the new friendships forged, old ones strengthened. Hours of ‘Uno’, sharing food and goodies, helping each other, understanding each other.
Celebrating a birthday at 14000 feet with a freshly baked cake and a milkmaid icing and the immeasurable effort and care that might have been put into the making of that cake!
Calling back home after a long gap. Enjoying the best scenery that a man could wish for while brushing teeth…not brushing teeth for a couple of days and of course the feeling of hot water on dirt caked skin after almost eight whole days!
Sleeping truly like a baby, after hot rice and dal and a bath! Waking up to mixed feelings – already missing the mountains, the simple life and then the longing to see my son and go back home to my own bed. Salivating at the thought of idli sambar, for some it was rotti palya!
Finishing up half a kilo of pear and a kilo of lychee between the both of us (me and Nagu)!
Enjoying the first taste of dahi and butter after what seemed like ages.
Explaining what a trek is to a beautiful Bengali lady and her kid at the railway station. Experiencing a slightly scary train ride.
Last but not least, snatching a few precious moments with my best friend, she and her spouse took so much pains to make those minutes filled with love and giving. Thank you both.
There is definitely something about the mountains, that makes you want to believe in these legends, to believe in magic and divinity and finally makes you believe in yourself and each other.
P.S: Picture courtesy – Thirtharaj BM, Nagashree Upadhyaya, Vidya.