Savitri Bai – a journey from Swiss haven to cultural India

Most Indian children who were growing up during late 1980’s would relate to the childhood memory of watching regular telecasts of television series called Param Vir Chakra. In fact, there is no denying the fact that, this television series was quite instrumental in arousing patriotic feelings among young, impressionable minds or at least made them familiar with the life and sacrifices of Indian soldiers and their families. I am sure, many individuals must have got inspired to join armed forces after watching this serial. Since then, the award Param Vir Chakra and its recipients holds a special place in our heart as we take pride in our soldiers and value the sacrifices that they make to protect our frontiers.

Param Vir Chakra, the literal meaning of these iconic words is “the wheel of the ultimate brave”. It is the highest wartime award given to Indian soldiers defending the land, the air and the sea, by displaying utmost courage and selflessness in the face of enemy. Thus, it is the most prestigious of all the gallantry awards in India. Since independence, about twenty-one soldiers have received it so far. Out of which about fourteen of them have received it posthumously. Talking about the specifications of the medal, it is a circular bronze disc. On the front, the National Emblem of India could be seen at the center which is surrounded by four copies of Vajra (the weapon of Indra) at the periphery. Each of these Vajras are in turn enclosed by two swords. On the reverse, the words “Param Vir Chakra” written both in English and Hindi is separated by lotus flowers. The medal is suspended from a straight-swiveling suspension bar with a purple ribbon holding it.

Few of us know that there is an interesting history behind the designing of this medal. Sadly, as is the case always with us Indians, passing on this valuable piece of information to future generations was never given much importance. Have we ever tried to know who has designed this prestigious award or what was the intricate thought process behind the design? Interestingly, the same lady who has designed Param Vir Chakra, has also designed many other major gallantry medals such as Ashok Chakra, Maha Vir Chakra, Kirti Chakra, Vir Chakra and Shaurya Chakra to name a few. Even more surprising is the fact that she was not an Indian by birth. She was born as Eve Yvonne Maday de Maros in Neuchatel, Switzerland to a Hungarian father and Russian mother in the year 1913. Surprised, isn’t it? How a person who was born and brought- up in Europe could justify the responsibility of designing our prestigious service medals is an interesting tale in itself. Furthermore, you will be surprised to know the awe-inspiring saga of how she had moulded herself into Indian ethos.

Eve’s father, Andre de Maday was a professor of sociology at Geneva University and president of the Societe de Sociologie de Geneva and her mother Marthe Hentzelt taught at Rousseau Institute. Her early life was spent at Geneva where she had developed love for nature and outdoors. During her free time, she would read a lot and due to this habit, she got to read about India.

In the year 1929, Vikram Ramji Khanolkar, a young Indian Army cadet undergoing training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the United Kingdom had visited Switzerland during his term break. That is when he happened to meet teenaged Eve. Although he was much older to her, yet they fell in love. Though her father had reservations in sending her so far away, but Eve was a determined and strong young woman. Thus, she followed her heart and came to India a few years later to marry Vikram. After marriage she changed her name to Savitri Bai, followed Sanatana dharma and obtained an Indian citizenship. She had adopted vegetarianism and could speak Hindi, Sanskrit and Marathi fluently. Her love and fascination for Indian culture was so much that she had become well versed with Vedic scriptures, ancient Indian history, and legends. During Major Khanolkar’s posting at Patna, Savitri bai had been to Patna University to learn Hindi and Sanskrit.

Savitri bai Khanolkar could relate with Vedic traditions so much that her integration into the Indian society was very smooth. Dressed in simple, cotton saris, with no make-up and chappals adorning her feet, she had adopted Indian way of life perfectly. This seems quite surprising from an Indian’s point of view, as an aftermath of colonial rule in the sub-continent most Indians were known to hold the luxurious life of the west in high esteem. And here was someone who had left a comfortable and happening life that a developed nation provides and in turn adopted a simpler, Indian lifestyle. What a strength of character young Savitri bai must have shown to have denounced a comfortable life for the sake of the love of her life! She not just left her father, country, or lifestyle in order to fit into her new roles in a family and environment of a faraway country, but with conviction she stood by her decision till her last breath. This is really very commendable and exemplary in today’s world.

Soon after Independence of India, Major General Hira Lal Atal was given the responsibility to come-up with a design of a medal for the highest gallantry award in India. It was an important task as this medal would be used to honour the most gallant and selfless sacrifices of the service personnel of the Indian Armed Forces. The medal had to be designed keeping in mind the valour and tradition of the people of an ancient civilization, which is now called India. A medal that would last eternally in the collective mind of a nation and should be worthy of the people it would be awarded to. It was no mean task and could not be taken lightly. At that point of time, he thought of no other person other than Savitri Bai as she had vast knowledge of Indian culture, Vedas and Upanishads.

While working on the design of Param Vir Chakra, she took inspiration from Sage Dadhichi, who made the ultimate sacrifice and donated his bones to Indra, king of the devas, so that they could make a deadly weapon, Vajra (thunderbolt). Indra needed the weapon to vanquish a formidable foe who was otherwise next to impossible to conquer. And, on either side of Vajra, she had placed Shivaji’s sword Bhawani. It seems after reading about Sivaji Maharaj, she was impressed with his valour and patriotism. Hence, she wanted to use a related symbol as a tribute to him. Thus, she made sure that Chatrapati Sivaji Maharaj’s sword Bhavani was placed into India’s highest wartime medal. This is how Indra’s vajra was surrounded on two sides by Shivaji’s sword Bhavani. And, in the middle of the medal she had rightfully placed the national emblem of India.

It is absolutely amazing to know about how she leveraged her in-depth knowledge of Indian culture and ethos and translated them into a symbol of highest gallantry and sacrifice. Sage Dadhichi had played a crucial role between the conflict that had taken place between the Asuras and the Devas. The Devas were dethroned from Swarga-loka or the heavenly planet by the powerful Asura, Vritra. Vritra was granted a boon to be unharmed by any forged weapon, including divine weapons. Devas needed a powerful weapon which was not forged to help them in their fight. That is when Sage Dadhichi offered his bones to Indra and thus in the process, he did the supreme sacrifice of his life so that Devas could re-claim their lost position. It is praise-worthy, how Savitri bai could draw parallel between Sage Dadhichi’s selfless sacrifice for a greater cause with that of a soldier sacrificing his very life for the sake of his country. And also, credit should go to Savitri bai for rightfully placing Shivaji’s sword Bhavani on the medal as Chatrapati Shivaji was known for his bravery and intelligence, with which he won so many wars against Mughals.

And thus, needless to say, Savitri Bai was able to live up to the expectations of the nation as well as Major General Hira Lal Atal as the medal was aptly designed representing Indian ethos. This award was formally introduced on January 26 in 1950, the republic Day of India. Since then, the medal has become symbol of the legends of Indian valour and sacrifice. Call it a strange coincidence or intertwining of fate, the first Param Vir Chakra was awarded to her elder daughter Kumudini Sharma’s brother-in-law Major Somnath Sharma from 4th battalion, Kumaon Regiment, who was posthumously awarded the decoration for his bravery during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947 in Kashmir.

Even though her contribution got lost in the bygone days and most of us don’t know her, but whenever the chapters of Param Vir Chakra would be referred to from the history, Savitri Bai Khanolkar’s name will be seen etched in bold letters. And the nation would always be in debt to her for her contributions and her great reverence for Indian culture. In today’s blind race to attain western prosperity, I hope India doesn’t loose her wealth of timeless culture and values.

– Aradhana Basu Das

12 responses to “Savitri Bai – a journey from Swiss haven to cultural India”

  1. Touching tale .You have connected the anecdotes from Shastras to the history of India, so well, that it really throws light on the symbols used on the param vir chakra.
    I get to know so many new facts from your write up, Aradhana.Really love them .Keep it up.
    Want more from you.

    Liked by 1 person

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