It’s time for all Indians to beam with pride once again. Swiss-born, Savitri Khanolkar, designed India’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra.
Savitri Khanolkar was born Eve Yvonne Maday de Maros on July 20, 1913 in Switzerland. She was brought up in a Hungarian family and her parents were University professors . Interestingly, Eve was a fun loving and daring girl since her early teenage and that exposure only gave her life a new turn.
At the age of 16, she met Vikram Khanolkar, who was from a Marathi family. He was an officer of the Indian Army and was undergoing Royal Military training in UK where she met him. Eve had an instant connection with him but her parents didn’t allow her to marry him since there was a wide gap between their ages and culture.
A few years later, in 1932, Eve flew to Mumbai and married Vikram Khonalkar and she adopted the Indian name, Savitri Bai.
Despite coming from a European background, she identified closely with Indian traditions and ideals. Her integration in society was very smooth and comfortable. She turned into a vegetarian and followed all Hindu customs. She involved herself in folklore and classical art forms such as dancing, painting and music. Not only this, but she also learnt to speak fluent Hindi, Marathi and Sanskrit.
She always claimed that she had been “born in Europe by mistake” as she was an Indian soul, and woe unto him who dared call her a “foreigner”!
She was so fascinated with Hindu mythology that she read extensively from Hindu scriptures and had a deep knowledge of India’s ancient history and legends. 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 the medal that would truly symbolize the highest bravery.
Savitri turned to Hindu mythology for inspiration for the design of the medal. She chose a simple purple ribbon and the motif of Rishi Dadhichi (who donated his thigh bone for the creation of a thunderstorm).
The medal has four replicas of Indra’s Vajra, made from Dadhichi’s bones representing his supreme sacrifice, surrounding the national emblem.
Incidentally, her daughter’s brother-in-law, that is, her son-in-law, Major Somnath Sharma was the first recipient of the Param Vir Chakra who was awarded this medal posthumously.
To quote a few words from the citation of October 20, 1962, relating to now 71- year-old Dhan Singh Thapa from Himachal Pradesh.
On 20th October, 1962, the post was attacked by the Chinese in overwhelming strenghth after being subjected to intensive artillery and mortar bombardment.
Under his gallant command the greatly outnumbered post repulsed the attack, inflicting heavy casualties on the aggressors. The enemy attacked again in greater numbers after having shelling by artillery and mortar fire. Under the leadershiop of Major Thapa his men repulsed this attack also with heavy losses to the enemy.
The Chinese attacked for the third time, now with tanks to support the infantry. Though considerably thinned the post held out to the last. When it was finally over run by the overwhelming numbers of Chinese, Major Thapa got out of his trench and killed several of the enemy in hand to hand fighting… .
Savitri bai was the first Indian woman to qualify and hold a pilot’s licence as a member of the North India Flying Club, Jalandhar. She also, authored two Sanskrit books and drafted her interpretation of the ‘Mahabharata’ and a manuscript which is yet to be published.
When The Tribune interacted with Lt. Gen Harbaksh Singh who was very closely associated with the Sikh Regiment and Vikaram Khonlkar in 1965 Indo-Pak War, for his reminiscence of the lady, he said,
Mrs Khanolkar was truly an Indian wife. She had been to Patna University and learnt Hindi and Sanskrit. She dressed simply, in cotton saris, and wore no rouge, and had chappals to wear!
For a time, Captain Khanolkar was my Company Commander in the Battalion and I had very close contact with his family. I liked Mrs Khanolkar and her ways immensely. She had become the follower of Ramakrishna, and started following Vedants. And, by her ways, she inducted me into Vedanta. I spent a month with the Khanolkars in Nowshera, our regimental centre then, when he was posted there after Aurangabad, and learnt ‘mediatation’ under her guidance.
Till her death in 1990, she was involved in social welfare. After her husband died in 1952, she focused her life towards public good. She worked closely with the families of soldiers and refugees who had problems settling in country after the partition.
During her last days, she took solace in spirituality and retired to the Ramakrishna Math. She wrote a book on the Saints of Maharashtra that is still popular today.
Here is a blog written by her great grandson, Sagat Shounik, who keeps Indian history alive and celebrates her birth centenary today. He writes that Savitri’s daughter, Mrs. Kumdini Sharma (Sagat’s grandmother) recalls that,
Her mother as a young child would worship the Sun and harboured the dreams of visiting mysterious land of India where worshipping Sun was a common practice.