Roopkund has an air of mystery associated with it. Many a folklore and tale are told about this glacial tarn which lies at 5020m, hidden below a ridge on the periphery of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary in the Chamoli District of the Garhwal Himalayas. The lake is frozen almost throughout the year. In the lake lie some 300 corpses, well preserved due to the cold and clearly visible when the lake thaws. The bones have been dated to the 14th century AD.
The widely accepted folklore relates them to the curse of Nanda Devi when a king brought his pregnant queen on the pilgrimage and she delivered a child thus polluting the sacred mountains. An annual pilgrimage or yatra or jat (as the locals call it) to Roopkund takes place around August–September. This culminates at Bedni Bugyal. Every 12 years, the Raj Jat is undertaken where pilgrims follow a sacrificial ram to Roopkund and thence over the Junar Gali Pass to Homkund. Thousands of devotees take part in the Raj Jat, many of them barefoot and scantily clad, braving the elements on sheer faith. A more probable theory to explain the corpses in Roopkund is that during one of the Raj Jats, some devotees must have slipped down the treacherous slopes which lead to the lake and met their icy graves.
The 12-yearly Raj Jat was held this year and more than 75,000 devotees took part in the yatra of which nearly 3,000 made it to Roopkund and Homkund. After much debate as to the prudence of going there after such a yatra, which would have disturbed the area, we decided to proceed anyway. Our plan was to follow the route of the Raj Jat from Wan to Roopkund, cross over the Junar Gali and go to Homkund and then come down to Ghat. The government had put in extra effort at repairing the paths along the entire route for the yatra which helped us. On the negative side, most of the campsites were littered with wrappers and plastic.
In the lake lie some 300 corpses, well preserved due to the cold and clearly visible when the lake thaws.
Chandrashekhar Kerkar, K. Madhu, Milind Bhide, K.Ramachandran, Rahul Natu and I left for Delhi by the Paschim Express on 23-Sep-2000. Kishore Lokre, who joined us at Delhi, had been entrusted with the task of procuring the provisions and rations for the trek. After repacking our sacks and kits, we boarded the Ranikhet Express from Old Delhi on the night of 24-Sep-2000.
Early next morning, at around 0500, we alighted at Haldwani. We hired a Sumo to take us to Debal, about 250 km from Haldwani. On the way, we stopped at Gwaldham to engage a guide for the trek. Friends, who had been on this trek earlier, had recommended the name of Kunwar Ram. He seemed to be a well-known personality and we had no difficulty in finding him. But, unfortunately, he was already engaged by another group to go to Sunderdhunga. He suggested that we take his son, Navin Chander, and we accepted his suggestion. Keri and Milind stayed on at Gwaldham to work out the details of the trek and hire porters while the rest of us proceeded to Debal where we stayed at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam’s (GMVN) rest-house. We bought some apples, vegetables, and kerosene at Debal.
The next morning, at around 1000, after Keri and Milind arrived from Gwaldham along with the guide and porters, we took a jeep taxi to Lohjung (2133m). Jeep taxis ply between Debal and Lohjung, a distance of about 20 km, and charge ₹35 per head. The jeepable track to Lohjung was being extended to Wan. Lohjung also has a GMVN rest-house. After lunch at the local dhaba, we started our trek at around 1400. Our destination for the day was Maladhar, a camping ground about 5 km from Lohjung, which we reached by 1600. Maladhar is slightly downhill of Lohjung and the route passes through some lovely forests.
The Maladhar camping site is like a saddle and has beautiful mountain ranges all around. We pitched our tents and, with some difficulty, managed to cook our dinner. There is no shelter at this site and our stoves didn’t function too well in the strong winds which started blowing in the evening. Water is available from a beautiful stream slightly downhill about 100m away. Walking down the wooded path to the stream the next morning, we were treated to a melodious concert of bird songs.
The next morning we proceeded towards Wan (2439 m), about 6 km from Maladhar. After an hour’s climb followed by a long walk for another hour or so, we crossed a stream to enter Wan. Wan is a biggish village and boasts of an English medium school as well. The pretty stone houses in the terraced fields ripe with the red rajgira-like grain (called chuha in the local tongue) and the yellow mustard were very picturesque. The GMVN rest-house at Wan is about a km away from the village and the steep climb to the guest house took us nearly half an hour. The rest-house, sitting on top of the hill, gives a great view of the village. We had a good invigorating bath in the ice cold waters of the stream flowing nearby.
A more probable theory to explain the corpses in Roopkund is that…some devotees must have slipped down the treacherous slopes which lead to the lake and met their icy graves.
Mr. Negi, who manages the rest-house, was very friendly and helpful. He not only gave us some wheat flour, but with the help of the porters served us hot rotis as well. Kishore demonstrated his culinary skills in cooking a delicious sabji and Madhu, as usual, prepared a delightful sambar.
Wan also gave us a sampling of the magnanimity of hill people. The lid of the kerosene tank of one of our stoves fell off on the way from Maladhar to Wan, making the stove absolutely useless. The spares in the small shop of the village did not match our stove. Realising that we would be seriously handicapped, the shopkeeper offered his own personal stove to us in exchange! Luckily the lid of his stove fit on ours and without any hesitation he gave it to us and charged us only ₹10 for it.
After an early breakfast the next morning, by about 0830, we left for Bedni Bugyal (3554 m), some 8 km away from Wan. We climbed gradually for about an hour to reach the top of a hill. We could see the tip of Trishul from this top. We then descended for about 20 minutes to reach a bridge to cross a stream in the valley below. Then began a steep climb to Gharoli (3049 m) which took us nearly 2 hours. The path passes through thick forests but water is not available anywhere near. Besides the steep gradient, a continuous drizzle made climbing difficult. At Gharoli we found an open concrete structure: just a roof supported on pillars with short (about a foot high) walls on the sides. It was extremely cold and we stopped there for a much needed rest and to refresh ourselves with some tea and snacks.
Then began another steep climb which lasted 45 minutes. We suddenly found ourselves out of the tree cover and onto the meadows on top of the hill. Another half an hour’s walk on the grassy plateau brought us to the beautiful meadows of the Bedni Bugyal. As we neared Bedni, we saw a lot of mouse hares curiously peeping at us and then scurrying away to disappear into their burrows as we moved near.
Bedni Bugyal is an expansive alpine meadow with gradually undulating slopes. A bugyal is a grazing alpine meadow. In the flowering season—August to early September—the meadows are full of colour. We reached well past the flowering season and had to rest content with the verdant green. At the annual Roopkund yatra, regional sports and cultural programmes are held here. On the banks of the pond at Bedni Bugyal is a small temple of Nanda Devi. Inside is a very small idol of the Devi – not more than 150 mm high. The small temple and the tiny idol in the wide open expanses surrounded by towering mountains was in stark contrast to the huge Ganesh idols in crowded Mumbai. It made us wonder whether it was the hillman’s symbolic way of expressing our insignificance in the larger scheme.
The peaks of Chania Kot, Nanda Ghunti (6310 m) and Trishul (7130 m) are seen to the north–northeast of the bugyal. Trishul and Nanda Ghunti were to be our constant companions throughout the trek. Nilkanth and Chaukhamba appear on the northwest–west horizon. It was raining intermittently and the sky was overcast so we couldn’t see any of the snow-capped peaks when we arrived at Bedni at around 1530. The rain was accompanied by hail and soon the ground was covered with frost.
There are some small huts built by the forest department and also a 2-room rest-house built by the Zilla Parishad which provide good shelter. A stream flows very near the rest-house. We stayed at the Zilla Parishad rest-house. Later in the evening we were treated to a colourful sunset. After a dinner of dal, rice and cabbage, we retired early to bed. The night was cold and the temperature outside must have fallen below zero for, when we woke up the next day, the ground was covered with frost and the nearby stream had stopped flowing.
Wan also gave us a sampling of the magnanimity of hill people.
In the morning, the skies had cleared up and, as we came out of the rest-house, we could see Nilkanth and Chaukhamba bathed in the golden glow of the rising sun. We could also clearly see the peaks of Nanda Ghunti and Trishul. The reflection of these peaks in the clear and calm waters of the pond was also a wonderful sight. This was a day of rest and, after a leisurely breakfast of upma, we decided to go to Ali Bugyal some 5 km away. Ali Bugyal is as beautiful, if not more, as Bedni Bugyal. While Bedni is sheltered by mountains on three sides, Ali Bugyal lies on top of a hill and provides a lovely view of the surrounding ranges. It would be great to camp at Ali Bugyal but water is not easily accessible. From the top of Ali Bugyal we could see many other smaller meadows on the hilltops of the surrounding ranges.
At about 0800 next morning, we left for Bhaguwabasa (4667 m), 8 km from Bedni. The path goes up the hill on the east of Bedni and an hour and a half of climbing brought us to the saddle top. This was the last point from where the Bedni Bugyal could be seen. The path forks here with the left arm going to Kunol and the right arm, descending slightly towards Trishul, goes to Bhaguwabasa.
About 2 km away is Patthar Nachani (3558 m) which is a good camping ground. According to folklore, some king on his way to Roopkund had camped there with his entourage. He entertained himself with dancing women. Nanda Devi, the reigning deity, outraged by this, turned the dancing women into stone statues and hence the name – Patthar Nachani – the Dancing Stones. There are no signs of these statues today and neither has any living soul seen them. But the locals strongly vouch for the veracity of the story.
Now began a steep climb up the face of the mountain to the top of its ridge. It was quite cold and as we neared the top, the lack of sufficient oxygen at the higher altitudes began to take its toll. It took us more than an hour and a half of continuous climbing to reach the top. At the top is a small temple of Kelva Vinayak – an idol of Ganesh in black stone. It is a practice to make some offering here before proceeding further. The guide and porters were a bit dismayed that we had not brought anything to offer. Kishore came to the rescue and chanted some Sanskrit prayers which seemed to put the porters at ease. A slight descent on the other side brought us to a somewhat level path and in another half an hour or so we reached Bhaguwabasa at about 1330. Beyond Kelva Vinayak, the path was covered with fresh snow. After we reached Bhaguwabasa it snowed lightly for nearly an hour.
The small temple and the tiny idol in the wide open expanses surrounded by towering mountains was in stark contrast to the huge Ganesh idols in crowded Mumbai. It made us wonder whether it was the hillman’s symbolic way of expressing our insignificance in the larger scheme.
An enterprising resident of village Wan has constructed a 3-room stone house at Bhaguwabasa which he rents out to trekkers and yatrisat Rs200 per room per day. During the trekking season he also stocks some provisions here. He had come to close down his shop for the season and took only ₹300 from us for the 3 rooms. Though the house did provide reasonably good shelter, the roof was not good enough to prevent rain and snow from coming in. Besides, doors to two of the rooms had been torn down by some earlier residents (most probably to be used as firewood) and the wind made the place unbearably cold. We finally pitched our tents inside the house which made the place a bit cosy.
Some of us were affected by high altitude sickness but recovered soon after steaming cups of soup and some rest. That night was the coldest we experienced and even the water in our water-bottles turned to ice. Walking around was difficult as the frost on the grass outside made it very slippery. It was so cold that it took us more than an hour to make 12 cups of tea on our stove, and even then the water did not come to a boil. Most of us were not prepared for such cold in terms of warm clothing and sleeping bags and we were forced to rethink our itinerary. We finally decided to drop the plan to go to Homkund which would cut down our programme by 3 days.
After a breakfast of noodles and tea, at around 0845, we left Bhaguwabasa for Roopkund (5020 m). The distance is only about 5 km, but due to the altitude and the continuous ascent on the steep snow-covered path, we took nearly 2 hours to reach Roopkund. Roopkund is in a bowl in the mountain, and on the top of the bowl we found some skulls (purportedly retrieved from the lake) arranged on an altar with a flag posted besides it. Down below, the lake was frozen and we couldn’t see any of the corpses. Over time, landslides have also reduced the size of the lake and the guide told us that nowadays only a few corpses can be seen when the lake thaws.
We then proceeded to cross Junar Gali (5354 m). It was a steep climb and the path was covered with snow. Due to the low levels of oxygen in the air at that altitude, we became breathless soon and had to stop to catch our breath every 4–5 steps. From the top we got a spectacular view of Trishul. The descent on the other side of Junar Gali was as steep and was covered with fresh snow 100–200 mm deep. The going was difficult. We covered the snow patch in about half an hour and then had to pick our way through a loose rocky path. It took us another 3 hours to reach the level ground of Shila Samudra (3500 m) near the base of Trishul. We reached camp at about 1530.
Shila Samudra, as the name implies, is a rock strewn place. The awesome Trishul, just a few of km away, towered over all else. In the evening, on the lower slopes, we saw what looked like a herd of wild goats. A massive glacier lies buried under rocks along the base of Trishul. The stream flowing from this glacier joins the Nandakini (a tributary of the Alaknanda) which flows down from Homkund. Homkund lies on the mountain to the north of Shila Samudra.
A huge boulder has formed a sort of cave and provides good shelter. We pitched our tents near this boulder and used the cave as the kitchen. The guide and the porters chose to sleep in the cave itself. Water had to be brought from a stream nearly 100 m away. By evening the water in the stream had started to freeze.
We finally pitched our tents inside the house which made the place a bit cosy.
The next morning was not too cold and, as we were getting up, we witnessed an awesome avalanche down the slope of Trishul. The avalanche was accompanied by a loud noise much like a thunderclap and lasted for a minute or so. Within minutes the ambient temperature dropped. Even the water vapour from our respiration which had condensed on the inside of the tents turned into a thin sheet of ice.
We packed up after the sun came out and left for Laat Khopdi at around 1000. The path to Laat Khopdi moves along the Nandakini river. From Shila Samudra, we had to descend down to the river over a very narrow ridge full of loose, precariously-balanced rocks. It took us more than an hour to cover a couple of kms. The path beyond the ridge climbed down gradually. As we descended we could observe the classic transition from meadows to birch trees to bamboo clumps and conifers to mixed forests. Laat Khopdi is a camping ground about 12 km from Shila Samudra. We reached Laat Khopdi at about 1415, and after a quick snack of noodles decided to proceed further to Tatda another 6 km away. The route to Tatda goes through dense forest and along the way we saw pug marks of leopards and bears and leopard droppings. We reached Tatda just as the sun went down and found the entire village deserted.
The houses in Tatda belong to residents of Sutol which is some 4-5 km downhill. They are used as summer dwellings when the people come up for farming/grazing in the highlands. One of the residents has earmarked a room on the first floor of his house for tourists. We stayed in this room.
The arrangement is very interesting. A ladder placed outside the house leads to this room which is always open. Anyone can come and stay here even if no one is around to collect the rent. When you go down to Sutol, you are expected to pay the rent of ₹150 per day to the owner of the house who also happens to own a shop in Sutol. Next morning while going down, we came across a lot of villagers who were coming up to work on the construction of a bridge near Tatda and one of them happened to be the son of the owner of the house who collected the rent from us. We met the owner some 15 km away near another village, Sitael, and he too enquired whether we had stayed in his room. He simply took our word that we had paid the rent to his son!
The avalanche was accompanied by a loud noise much like a thunderclap and lasted for a minute or so. Within minutes the ambient temperature dropped. Even the water vapour from our respiration which had condensed on the inside of the tents turned into a thin sheet of ice.
We left Tatda early the next morning after a light breakfast thinking that we would get something to eat in the shop at Sutol. But when we reached Sutol, we found that village deserted too. Most of the residents had either gone up to work on the bridge or gone to their fields. One young boy agreed to make some black tea for us and another woman sold us some cucumbers. After this unusual snack we proceeded towards Sitael another 10 km away. The path descends into the valley to a bridge over a stream. Beyond the bridge, we had to climb up for an hour or so to the top of the hill and then descend down to the river and cross it to reach the village. We stayed at the Forest rest-house. Negi Hotel, the local dhaba, served us a simple but delicious dinner.
The next morning we walked down about 8 km to Chefna from where we took a Jeep taxi to Ghat. At Ghat we engaged a Sumo to take us to the rafting camp of Adventure Links at village Sintahli near Kaundilya about 30 km upstream of Hrishikesh. The camp is set up on a big beach on the Ganga. A small bay which cuts into the beach provides a good swimming pool reasonably isolated from the flow of the river. After reaching camp at around 2030, we had a swim in this pool. Though the water was cold the swim was quite refreshing. It also gave us quite an appetite for the delicious dinner which followed. The next morning we went to a small waterfall in the neighbouring hills. The bath beneath this fall was like a massage and did a lot of good to our aching muscles.
After lunch we went white water rafting down the Ganga from the campsite to a place called Marine Drive (!) about 15 km downstream. The rapids in this stretch are not too severe and are rated not more than 4 on a scale of 10. The amazing power of the rapids threatened to overturn the raft and we had to put in a lot of effort to keep it right and at the same time not get thrown overboard. On some relatively calm stretches K Ram, Kishore, Keri and I, with our life jackets on, jumped out of the raft and swam or rather let ourselves be carried by the flow. It was a wonderful experience. Maybe someday we might be able to go on a rafting expedition down one of the Himalayan rivers…