The Param Vir Chakra was designed by Savitri Khanolkar, a Swiss national whose real name was Eve Yvonne Maday de Maros, married to an Indian Army officer, Vikram Ramji Khanolkar.
She was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland to a Hungarian father and Russian mother. Her father, André de Maday, was a professor of sociology at Geneva University, while her mother, Marthe Hentzelt, taught at the Rosseau Institute. In 1929, she met Vikram Khanolkar, a young Indian Army cadet undergoing training at Sandhurst, who had come to Switzerland for a break. She was still a teenager then; however, both fell in love although Vikram was much older than her.
She came to India in 1932 – though her father was not too keen on it – and married Vikram in Lucknow. She changed her name to Savitri Bai after marriage. In spite of her European background she quickly adapted to Hindu tradition.
She became a vegetarian, learnt to speak fluent Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit. And also learnt Indian music, dance and painting. She called herself an European with an Indian soul, and never liked being called a foreigner. She had a deep interest in Hindu Puranas, which she read extensively, and also studied India’s ancient history and its legends. It was due to this that Major Hira Lal Atal, the first Indian Adjutant General of independent India, asked her help in designing the Param Vir Chakra.
Drawing on her extensive knowledge of the Puranas, Savitri Bai thought of Rishi Dadhichi, who had given up his own body for Indra to make the deadly Vajra, or thunderbolt. She came up with the design of a double Vajra, a common Tibetan motif then. The Param Vir Chakra is cast in bronze, with a radius of 1 and 3/8th inches. In the centre, on a raised circle, is the Ashok stambh, surrounded by four replicas of Indra’s Vajra and flanked by swords.
Incidentally, the first recipient of the PVC, Major Somnath Sharma, was the brother-in-law of Savitri Bai’s elder daughter Kumudini, who died while fighting at the Battle of Badgam during the 1948 war with Pakistan.
She also did a lot of social work, helping the families of soldiers killed in war, as well as Partition refugees. After her husband passed away in 1952, Savitri Bai sought refuge in spirituality and spent her later years with the Ramakrishna Math. She also wrote a book on the Saints of Maharashtra.
She passed away on 26 November 1990 at the age of 77 after leading a truly remarkable life. A Swiss national of mixed Hungarian-Russian descent, married to an Indian Army officer, who adapted to the Hindu ethos extremely well, had designed the Param Vir Chakra, the highest military award in India.
Savitri Khanolkar also designed several other major gallantry medals including the Ashok Chakra (AC), Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), Kirti Chakra (KC), Vir Chakra (VrC) and Shaurya Chakra (SC).
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