From mastering Vedas to designing Param Vir Chakra medal, the story of ‘Swiss’ born ‘Savithri’

True love knows no bounds…

Love is courage, selflessness and more than everything, love is sacrifice.

May it be for a fellow human being, or for one’s culture, or for the motherland.

This is a story which redefines the clichéd ‘love is blind’ statement. An extraordinary story of love which brought a Swiss born artist to India, where she discovered her love for the culture of this land and did something great, for those who make ultimate sacrifice in the love for their country.

Eve Yvonne Maday de Maros

Born in Switzerland to a Hungarian father André de Maday, and Russian mother Marthe Hentzelt, Eve spent her early childhood in Geneva, she was a compassionate girl with a love of nature and the outdoors. She was an artist and a painter.

In 1929, when she was still a teenager, she met the first love of her life, Vikram Ramji Khanolkar. Khanolkar was a young Indian Army cadet undergoing training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the United Kingdom, and he was visiting Switzerland during a term break.

Her father’s disapproval to her love did not stop Eve. She was a determined young woman, and her love was strong. She followed Vikram to a faraway country, India a few years later.

in 1932, Eve and Vikram got married in Lucknow. Post marriage Eve became Savitri Bai Khanolkar.

It was after marriage to Major General Vikram, she fell in love for the second time. This teen with the rich culture, spiritual knowledge of India and the language sanskrit.

Despite her European background, Savitri Bai identified herself so closely with Hindu traditions, that her integration into Indian society was smooth and effortless.

She was a vegetarian. learnt to speak fluent Marathi, Sanskrit and Hindi. She learnt Indian classical music, dance and painting. She always claimed that she is an Indian “born in Europe by mistake”. she was an Indian soul. It would anger her beyond measure if someone referred to her as a foreigner.

She was so fascinated with Hindu Puranas, she learnt Sanskrit and read the Hindu scriptures extensively. She had a very deep knowledge of India’s ancient history.

It was this knowledge that led Major General Hira Lal Atal, the creator of the Param Vir Chakra, to ask for Savitri Bai’s help in designing a medal that would truly symbolize the highest bravery.

Hira lal Atal ji was Facing the challenge of creating an Indian version of the Victoria Cross – the UK’s legendary gallantry award that was reputedly minted from Russian cannons captured during the Crimean War in 1855.

Atal ji when approached Savitri for the task of designing the medal, she turned to the Hindu scriptures. She chose the motif of Dadhichi, a Vedic rishi who made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight of good over evil. When the Gods sought his help in overcoming a fearsome demon, Vrutrasur, Dadhichi gave up his body to let the Gods fashion a vajrayudha – the deadly thunderbolt – from his bones which had absorbed all the energy from devatas weapons. Armed with this vajrayudha, Indra slew Vrutrasur.

Savitri designed 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.

Her love for India had transformed into a medal awarded to those brave hearts who love their country beyond measures and show ultimate courage in war time.

Her designed medal was first conferred to Major Somanath Sharma, who happens to be Savitri’s daughter’s brother-in-law.

On November 3, 1947, Major Somnath Sharma, was leading a hundred infantrymen, and fought to the death in a heroic battle near Srinagar airfield against 700 Pathan tribal invaders from Pakistan. Sharma and his battalion, 4 Kumaon, had flown in from New Delhi just in time to hold off the invaders who were closing in on the airfield, which was Kashmir’s lifeline.

Sharma’s strong resistance won the time to fly in more soldiers, and to save Srinagar, eventually winning back the Kashmir Valley for India.

This act of bravery won him India’s first Param Vir Chakra (PVC), the highest gallantry award.

Less known fact is that the Param Vir Chakra did not exist when Major Sharma made his ultimate sacrifice. It was instituted only on January 26, 1950, when India became a republic.

With the PVC, Savitri Khanolkar also designed the Mahavir Chakra, the Vir Chakra and the Ashok Chakra, the highest peacetime gallantry award. In India’s official order of precedence, the PVC is second only to the Bharat Ratna.

Vikram Khanolkar eventually retired from the army as a major-general. After his demise, Savitri renounced all the comforts, dedicated herself for social service, took up sanyasa. She became a part of Ramakrishna Mission, until her death in 1990.

To travel distance for her love, to accept the culture and to become one with it. Savitri Khanolkar was a true Indian by heart and soul. She will be remembered for generations to come.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth