Compiled By: Shri Ramakrishna Prasad
Param Vir Chakra (PVC), India’s its highest gallantry award, was instituted only on January 26, 1950, having been designed by Yvonne Maday de Maros, who was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland to a Hungarian father and Russian woman. In 1932, 19-year-old Yvonne ran away to India to marry army officer Vikram Khanolkar, who she had met and fallen in love with while he was training in the UK. Being also in love with the spirituality of the country, Yvonne became an Indian, adopted the name Savitri Bai, immersed herself in Hindu scriptures and took a degree from the Nalanda University.
Savitri Bai Khanolkar was born on July 20, 1913. Despite coming from a European background, Savitribai identified so closely with Indian traditions and ideals, that her integration into Indian society was smooth and effortless. She was a vegetarian, learnt to speak fluent Hindi and Marathi, and learnt Indian music, dance and painting. She always claimed that she is an Indian “born in Europe by mistake”. It would anger her beyond measure if someone referred to her as a foreigner. She was so fascinated with Hindu mythology that she read extensively from Hindu scriptures. She had a deep knowledge of India’s ancient history and legends. It was this knowledge that led Major General Atal, the creator of the Param Vir Chakra to ask for Savitribai’s help in designing a medal that would truly symbolize the highest bravery.
Savitribai thought of the sage Dadhichi – a Hindu rishi who made the ultimate sacrifice to the Gods. He gave up his body so that the Gods could fashion a deadly weapon – a Vajra, or thunderbolt, from his spine. Savitribai gave Maj. Gen. Atul the design of the double Vajra, common in Tibet, and also suggested that it be flanked by Bhawani – the sword of the valiant and fearless warrior king Shivaji. Thus was born the design of the Param Vir Chakra. By an amazing co-incidence, the very first Param Vir Chakra was awarded to Somnath Sharma, who was the brother of Savitribai’s future son-in-law!
Savitri designed for Major General Hiralal Atal a medal with a simple purple ribbon. Imprinted on the medal face are four replicas of Indra’s vajra, reflecting Dadhichi’s sacrifice. Between the vajras is embossed the Ashok emblem. The medal is cast in bronze.
Besides designing the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), she designed the major Gallantry Medals for both war and peace, namely Ashok Chakra (AC), Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), Kirti Chakra (KC), Vir Chakra (VrC) and Shaurya Chakra (SC)! In India’s official order of precedence, the PVC is second only to the Bharat Ratna. Savitribai did a lot a social work too in her later years, working with soldiers and their families and refugees who had been displaced during the Partition. After her husband’s death in 1952, she found refuge in spirituality, and retired to the Ramakrishna Math. She wrote a book on the Saints of Maharashtra that is popular even today. Savitribai Khanolkar died in 1990, but her memory lives on in the great award that she designed. It is fitting that a remarkable lady who truly loved India and was intensely proud of being an Indian designed an award that is given to soldiers who love their country so much that they are ready to die for it.