As settlers came in through the northwestern frontier, great cities were formed along the life-giving rivers of the Ganga and the Yamuna. Along the centuries, always under pressure from further incursions through the Khyber Pass, these settlements moved further east, to Varanasi and Pataliputra. And always, through two thousand years of history, Delhi, or a version of it, is the epicentre of all this movement.

This blood-soaked city of cities, created and destroyed seven times, is intrinsic to the lives and fortunes of two of our heroines – Raziya Sultan and Jahanara Begum. Only Meerabai, in her extraordinary peripatetic wandering, went beyond this landlocked swathe of Indo-Gangetic scrub plains to the western coastal city of Dwarka. All the others dreamed their impossible longing into being within this geography of the north.

Of the eight women discussed here, all but one stepped out onto the great north Indian road – dusty, shifting, endless, and full of dangers for the unaccompanied woman – where even in modern-day India, women are often forbidden from venturing. They set out barefoot, like Radha and Ambapali, searching for a different kind of truth, or on horseback like Laxmibai, Raziya Sultan and Hazrat Mahal, at the head of armies of men, demanding a justice that had been denied.

They made the journey alone, unaccompanied by husband or father or adult son.

Raziya proudly claimed the title of Sultan, refusing its “delicate” feminine corollary, Sultana. Only Draupadi was accompanied by her husbands, but, paradoxically, she is all the more alone for the surfeit of husbands she has as more often than not they fail to protect her.

In the heroic context, it may not appear to be very momentous to leave one’s home and the security of society in search of a personal goal, but even today, women in India face society’s opprobrium or worse for being seen to “transgress” or even when they are just going about their lives. Women are mutilated and murdered on cold December evenings in Delhi outside movie theatres, and they are raped on balmy Mumbai afternoons in abandoned textile mills.

They are killed, and brutalised and tortured in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and beyond, for leaving their homes with men of the wrong religion, or caste or colour. This is why the obduracy of that first step, which took these eight women outside the safety of their known universe, was truly remarkable, because every woman in India understands why such a decision was momentous.

Once out of the confines of their homes and settled society, the women had to deal with the realities of the open road, forests and grasslands. Radha and Meerabai had an organic, nurturing relationship with the forest. For them, the forest was a place of safety. The natural world, the animals, the birds and the flowers, were complicit in the women’s desires. Both Radha and Meerabai substitute elements from nature for the visible, man-made symbols of suhaag that they have both abandoned: the flower necklace for the gold, clinking seed pods for pearls.

For Draupadi, however, and also for Laxmibai, the forest and the countryside were places of violence. Especially for Draupadi, each day spent in the forest is an assault on her former life as a queen. For Laxmibai, too, life outside her beloved Jhansi was full of physical hardship and emotional pain. The last verifiable sighting of Laxmibai is by the Brahmin traveller Vishnu Bhatt Godshe – he describes her as mud-streaked and exhausted, scouring the parched countryside for some scummy water at the bottom of a well.

This is not the story that the burnished metal of the statues, which have immortalised Laxmibai, tell us. Most of the women discussed in this book have been similarly glossed so that all their individuality is diluted. Even the physical differences of these women, who were all so very different from one another, have been forgotten.

Draupadi’s beauty dazzled all who saw her. As I have mentioned, her dark complexion was her most alluring feature (she is described as being the colour of the blue lotus and is given the names Shyama, dark as night, and Krishna, the dark one) but that has been brushed out of the way. Raziya Sultan, whose father was the Turk Iltutmish, would have had classically central Asian features, high cheekbones and slanting eyes.

Laxmibai was “not very pretty”, according to Governor General Canning “but had beautiful eyes and figure”. John Lang, her lawyer, is more enthusiastic and candid in his praise and claimed “her expression is very good and very intelligent. Eyes particularly fine and nose very delicately shaped. Not fair, but far from black”.

Begum Hazrat Mahal, who was a courtesan before becoming one of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s mu’tah wives, had African slave ancestry through her father and had a dark complexion and fine, strong features. Some of these women were very beautiful, like Ambapali, but some were not. Of Jahanara Begum and Meerabai we are told almost nothing about their physical appearance. Modern iconography, however, has transformed these women and Meerabai is now almost always depicted as a pale- skinned woman in sparkling white robes, a mystifying rendition of a woman who spent the bulk of her years wandering the monsoon forests and arid fields of north India.

It is not only the physical appearance of these women that has been reconfigured and sanitised for the modern age.

Their personal idiosyncrasies and fallibilities have been obscured, if not forgotten. In the light of modern history, there is no allowance for frailty. And yet the loss is always ours, when we smooth out the jagged edges. These women are sometimes scheming, often manipulative, but always brave and very human in their ecstasies, doubts and triumphs. Across two and a half millennia, Draupadi’s despair comes across to us when we hear her lament to Krishna:

I have no husband, no sons and no brother
Even you, Krishna, are not really mine at all.

How intensely moving is the knowledge that Laxmibai lived a night of fear and uncertainty as the British cannons pounded the walls of Jhansi. That her courage vacillated briefly, before she tied on her pearl necklace and anklets, strapped her sword onto her belt and rode into immortality and legend on her silver horse in the lustrous light of a full moon.

That Jahanara Begum, devout Sufi though she was, had a ruinous love of expensive paan and wine, and the company of young people, does not make her less admirable, only more human. And Radha’s married status makes her love for Krishna more intense, her sacrifice more complete and her surrender to a divine love more absolute.

India, along with China, has the oldest continuous cultural traditions in the world. And while our ancient legends, scripture and literature live on, our historical records are almost non-existent. There are many plausible explanations for this gap in written records – the notoriously destructive climate for a start. There is also, it has been suggested, a lamentable disregard for the things of antiquity, a notion that the past has had its day and does not require tedious archiving. There have been wars, and savage retribution and endless destruction of cities, of libraries and of the guardians of the past.

After the Great Uprising of 1857, for example, many historical records were destroyed by the British in the vindictive carnage that followed the re-taking of Delhi, Meerut, Agra, Lucknow and other centres of the revolt. Many manuscripts and eyewitness accounts were destroyed or remained hidden within families for generations for fear of reprisals from the British.

If such is the fate of written history as a whole, then the neglect of women in history should come as no surprise.

Excerpted with permission from Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History, Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company.