Roopkund Saga – A story of stories
Situated in the the lap of Trishul massiv, Roopkund, a high altitude glacial lake in Uttarakhand at a height of 5,029m, is famous for human skeletal remains and is tantalizingly known as “The Mystery Lake”. It had been on the agenda for quite some time. The long, arduous treks through stunning and difficult terrain that needed to be undertaken only whet my appetite. So when an intrepid group of friends came together to form a team, it was a no brainer to say a resounding “YES!” and get on with it. The fact that I had fun memories of another trek with some of these friends and the suitability of dates, only made the packing swifter.
A trekker’s suitcase!The most frustrating part by far was the ride from home to the bus station to begin the saga. The swarming city traffic had come to typical standstill and for a while it seemed life would pass by just warming the posterior and waiting for an opportunity to inch forward. Made it to the bus, to be greeted by a confused conductor who said our pre booked seats were already taken. Irritated by the heat, long drive and no dinner, I snapped at him to make whosoever was on our seats vacate holding out our Ids for inspection. He peered endlessly at the Ids confused, as if trying to decipher a complicated theorem, when a lady and her teenage son called out our names hesitatingly. They were in two of the four group reserved seats against our names. These were the other two team members who were supposed to be traveling with us. Instant camaraderie and shared laughs, we settled down into the seats, confusion sorted, while the conductor still had his head buried in the passenger list, mumbling our names and trying to put two and two together. Our new friends were from Doha. Turns out the lady was from my college but we had never met! Conversation soon gave way to snoozing along the night journey. Drifting in and out of sleep, we woke up to find that the bus had reached Haldwani an hour before scheduled time. Miracles do happen, and I wanted to celebrate this unusual performance (we were EARLY!!) except that the whole town was shut with sleepy shutters staring at us, rain soaked streets, no place to sit or put luggage down and a lone tea stall with doubtful hygiene open. We braved a cup of tea banking on the boiling process to kill all germs and hailed two auto rickshaws to drive down to Kathgodam railway station to meet up with rest of the gang that was traveling by train. I was told by my friend organizing the trip that the tempo traveler which was to drive us to the next destination would be already waiting and she gave me a number to call. I don’t know whose number it was, but after a couple of calls to an irate lady woken up from deep slumber in the wee hours, demanding to know who the hell I was, I decided it was best to wait for all to arrive lest she trace me down and run me over. A beautiful breeze, plenty of strolls up and down outside the station and several stubborn mosquito buzzes later, we were all aboard the promised vehicle to our next destination, Lohajung.
It was an approximately 9 hour journey along beautiful Kumaon mountains. The serene sights were constantly interrupted by throaty sounds from the driver though. He was a veritable spit machine, his head popping out of the window continuously to spit out tobacco. He was leaning more out than in throughout the journey. I didn’t dare open my window for fear of having a wet missile rebound in the wind and land on me. He was also the most social person I have ever met. There was not a single soul he did not know driving in the opposite direction and he had absolutely no qualms in breaking repeatedly in the middle of the road to chat up other passing drivers, catching up on trivia. Passengers and other vehicles behind be damned. We stopped en route to have breakfast and the gentleman reversed his vehicle into a mountain side, ramming it and calmly declaring that it was firmly parked now and the back door could not be opened to retrieve anything even if we needed it. That was that.
Breakfast over, the long drive continued, winding continuously through snug curves and hilly turns entering Garhwal region and terminating at our destination for the night. Lohajung (2336m) has a history behind its name. As the name suggests it’s to do with battle. According to legend (many were to follow) and as conveyed by our guides, an asur (ghost/demon) attacked residents of this village. A goddess appeared to save them, a battle (‘jung’) ensued and the goddess slayed the demon with an iron knife (‘loha’), giving the place its militant name. The place is anything but.
Camp at LohajungAfter an overnight stay, we began our trek to Didna village early next morning. About 4-5 hours of walking through an enchanting forest abundant in bird life, crystal clear streams and a couple of villages, going downhill initially and then upto 2453m, we reached the next beautiful campsite above Didna village. This was a teaser for the fantabulous bugyals (meadows) that lay ahead in the next day’s itinerary. As informed by our guides, ‘Didna’ means lamp or flame. The goddess who saved Lohajung village is believed to have stayed at Didna for a night and the burning of her lamp is what gave this place it’s name.
En route to DidnaDay 3 saw us headed towards the bugyals (meadows). The first stunning meadow was Ali Bugyal at an elevation of 3451m. Steady ascent through thick oak forests, endless vistas in various hues of green merging with the horizon on either side, playing light and dark with the sun’s frivolous rays, rolling hills kissed by wafting clouds tossed at will by the winds, mountain peaks (Trishul) visible at a distance and the sound of bells on cattle echoing loudly, made it feel like an out of body experience! It is definitely one of the most stunning places in the world I have visited. These are also considered to be the largest meadows in this part of the world and arguably the most beautiful. And the best was yet to come!
Ali BugyalThe chill in the wind picked up as we strode along the magical greenery. The sun hid under a blanket of clouds with distant rumbles of thunder threatening to spill rain in full force. But the rain gods showed mercy just yet. The landscape merged seamlessly into the infinity that was the constantly rolling green meadows of Bedni Bugyal,Bedni Bugyalat an altitude of 3602m. The intermittent sight and sound of cattle was reassuring. A tea stall in the middle of this expanse, perched on a hill-top was warmth infusing and spirit uplifting. As was the tea and Maggi served fresh. The cold and wind had definitely picked up making us shiver as we stood to savor these ‘soul delicacies’ in the middle of nowhere. The gentleman said he set up shop just for the couple of months the bugyals were not snowed under and it was humanly possible to be stationed there. Racing against impending rain and the prospect of even chillier conditions we determinedly trekked to our next camp atBedni.
Our camp at Bedni was next to a dried up lake with a ring like structure constructed around its periphery. There were small temples outside and inside this ring. Faith plays a big role up in the mountains. We seemed to cross many small temples all along the journey to Roopkund, which our guides elucidated were land/distance markers but, given the remoteness of terrain, became symbols of worship over time for making it to each of these points. It resonated and made sense. Standing in the middle of such vastness was enough to make one feel inconsequential and in need of a higher power on one’s side.
Bedni too comes packaged with a legend as informed by our guides. ‘Bed’ (pronounced baid) is a unit of hand measure/hand span. The reigning goddess is said to have carved out the lake using her hand span (‘bed’) after doing a parikrama (inspection) of the area and choosing the spot for the water body. Hence the name ‘Bedni’ (carved by the hand of a goddess).
The following morning we set out for Bagwabasa via Patar Nachauni (3908m) and Kalu Vinayak (4326m).
Bagwabasa (4304m) served as our base camp before we strode out for the final ascent to Roopkund lake. This was the most challenging leg of the trek (Bedni- Roopkund- Bedni) with some serious distance, elevation and hours of continuous trekking involved. The rapid change in altitude could be felt. The beauty of the surroundings didn’t wane but the challenge quotient certainly went up by more than a notch with sharper ascents and descents. A quick tea break at Patar Nachauni en route from Bedni to Bagwabasa was a welcome respite.
Both names (Patar Nachauni and Bagwabasa) have a historical story involved. According to yet another legend (of which I remember only sketchy details), women were not allowed to go up to Patar/Patal Nachauni. The king of Kinnour did not believe in such restrictions and sent his daughters up who eventually could not be found later. Legend does not clearly spell the cause of their disappearance. Possible death? Thus, came the name of the place. ‘Patal’ (metamorphosed to ‘Patar’) means underground/underworld and Nachauni seems to be a derivative of the word ‘Nashini’ (meaning death/destruction) resulting in ‘Patar/Patal Nachauni’. Regards Bagwabasa, the story goes that the place was once a den (‘waas’) of tigers (‘bagh’) so the name mutated to its current form.
Bagwabasa was rocky, cold, wet and uncomfortable with formidable views of the final destination and journey. The eight of us huddled in a shed, drawing heat from each others proximity, biding time for the 2:45am start to the peak. From here one gets to see fabulous views of Neelkanth, Chaukhamba and Hathi peaks as and when clouds clear. Rain was already lashing heavily adding to the grey and cold as we reached the campsite. Fortunately it subsided through the night. With head lamps on we set out to seek what we had travelled far and wide to see. Trudging through the darkness was a different feeling. All we could see was where our feet fell. Which landed up being a blessing is disguise we realized on the way down from the summit when we could see the track. We hit the summit just as the rays of the sun broke out making the snow acquire a sheet of florescent bluish white glow.
And there it was, finally! Roopkund – the crater lake with walls of snow and rocks, the skeletal remains, the pristine ambience…made it all worth the effort.
There are different theories pertaining to the mystery lake and it’s skeletal remains. I will stick to the mythological version, in the same vein as all previous ones here.
Legend has it that Lord Shiva and Parvati were travelling through the region. Parvati did not have anything to mirror her in such a terrain to get ready. She expressed this to Shiva, who struck his Trishul in the snow to carve out a crystal clear lake where she could catch her reflection and do the needful. And thus was born Roopkund. ‘Roop’ means form/countenance (Parvati’s reflection of her form in this case), ‘Kund’ means a natural water bowl. The flat bowl in the high mountain with the lake in the middle of nowhere makes you believe this version somehow!
The skeletal remains are mythologically attributed to the royal family of King of Kinnour which camped here for the night but perished with the hail and thunder-storm that ensued. I assume it was the search party that came looking for the missing women of the earlier story.
There was of course a whole other journey of coming down and retracing steps to where it all began – of an arduous 5 km trek down the steep mountains in thick rain lashing mercilessly throughout, making footholds and balance treacherously challenging; of white horses appearing against puffs of white clouds and green mountains, presenting a surreal picture; of a steep downhill skid-walk through kilometers of unending forest ,through thick slush; of a quick-lunch by a flowing rivulet; of a long walk through the enchanting Vaan village and the crash landing into the real world with the hustle and bustle of Almora town. But that’s for another time….
And because I do what I do, I cannot resist adding this postscript:– Do not take any expedition/outdoor experience and your readiness for it lightly. It’s not about finishing. It’s about enjoying the experience as it unfurls in the present and having faith in your ability to cope. Be intelligently mindful of the magnitude of possibilities.
– Read requirements/instructions carefully and come as prepared as you can – with your mind, body and luggage.
– There are a lot of fitness programs being passed around by individuals and companies as part of their outreach. Many are simply cut and paste jobs and random internet pickings that may not work so well in reality. Knowing your health status before embarking on such outings is imperative. No point in proving a point or making it about bragging rights (that’s immature and risky). There are safer places and conditions to try that.
-Most importantly, DO something about all the information at your disposal. Address your weak points well in time to avoid unnecessary pain, discomfort and exigencies. Its really not that difficult. Why shortchange yourself?!