The Swiss-born who crafted Param Vir Chakra, India's highest gallantry medal - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 19 July 2013

The Swiss-born who crafted Param Vir Chakra, India's highest gallantry medal

The Param Vir Chakra, India's highest gallantry award, designed by Savitri Bai Khanolkar

Savitri Khanolkar was born in Switzerland on 20th July 1913. Today is her birth centenary

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th July 13

On Nov 3, 1947, Major Som Nath Sharma, leading a hundred infantrymen, fought to the death in a heroic last-ditch 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, Kashmir’s lifeline. 

Sharma’s dogged resistance won the time to fly in more soldiers, save Srinagar, and eventually win back the Kashmir valley for India. He is famous as the winner of India’s first Param Vir Chakra (PVC), its highest gallantry award.

Less known is that the PVC did not exist when Sharma made his stirring last stand. It was instituted only on Jan 26, 1950, having been designed by a Hungarian-Russian woman who was born Yvonne Maday de Maros in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. In 1932, 19-year-old Yvonne ran away to India to marry an army officer, Vikram Khanolkar, who she had met and fallen in love with whilst he was training in the UK. In love also with the spirituality of India, Yvonne became an Indian, adopted the name of Savitri Bai, immersed herself in the Hindu scriptures and took a degree from Nalanda University. Soon after independence, the army’s Adjutant General, Major General Hiralal Atal, asked her to design the PVC medal.

Today is the birth centenary of Savitri Bai Khanolkar, who was born in Switzerland on July 20, 1913. It is also, by association, an anniversary for the PVC, an honour so rare that only 21 Indians have won it so far. Like Sharma, most of them gave up their lives, including legends like Major Shaitan Singh in Rezang La in 1962, 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal at Basantar in 1971 and Captain Vikram Batra in Kargil in 1999.

Faced with 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 --- Savitri turned to the Hindu scriptures. She chose the motif of Dadhichi, a Vedic rishi (sage) who made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight of good over evil. Asked by the Gods for help in overcoming a fearsome demon, Vrutrasur, Dadhichi gave up his body to let the Gods fashion a Vajra --- a deadly thunderbolt --- from his thighbone. Armed with this Vajra, Indra slew Vrutrasur.
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 lion state emblem. The medal is cast in bronze.
Major Som Nath Sharma, who won India’s first PVC, was Savitri Khanolkar’s daughter’s brother-in-law. He was awarded the medal retrospectively when it was instituted on India first Republic Day, along with the other four PVC awardees of the 1947-48 Kashmir war --- Lance Naik Karam Singh; 2nd Lieutenant RR Rane; Naik Jadunath Singh; and Havaldar Major Piru Singh Shekhawat.

Along with the PVC, Savitri Khanolkar also designed the Mahavir Chakra and 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 became a nun of the Ramakrishna Mission, until her death in 1990.


  1. Than you for changing the subject from that Mud and Muck...

    The medal itself is a small one. It is cast in bronze, and has a radius of 13/8 inch. In the centre, on a raised circle, is the state emblem, surrounded by four replicas of Indra's Vajra, flanked by the sword of Shivaji. The decoration is suspended from a straight swiveling suspension bar, and is held by a 32 mm purple ribbon.

    Despite coming (or maybe because of coming) from a European background, Savitri Bai identified so closely with Hindu traditions and ideals, that her integration into Indian society was smooth and effortless. She was a vegetarian, learnt to speak fluent Hindi, Marathi and Sanskrit, and learnt Indian music, dance and painting. She always claimed that she had been "born in Europe by mistake" as she was Indian soul, & woe unto him who dared to 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 a medal that would truly symbolize the highest bravery.

  2. Shivaji's sword Bhavani which is part of the motif :

  3. You've got her date of birth wrong Colonel Ji.

  4. Says, "Savitri Khanolkar was born in Switzerland on 20th July 2013. Today is her birth centenary".

    The year of her birth is a typo.

  5. I believe you meant 1903 and not 2013

  6. Savitri Khanolkar was born in Switzerland on 20th July 2013?
    20th July 1913

  7. Col A K Sarkar20 July 2013 at 03:55

    Thanks Ajai.It,s an excellent information.Thanks again.

  8. The nation of extreme differences, each a metal of its own properties... Alloyed by sacrifices And bravery...
    Salute to Savitri Bai...
    Salute to the soldiers...

  9. Sir the year of the birth of the lady wrongly given as should be 1913..

  10. It should read as "1913" instead of 2013 in the sentence - " Savitri Khanolkar was born in Switzerland on 20th July 2013. Today is her birth centenary"

  11. Thanks everyone for pointing out the caption error. THe article itself had her date of birth correct, so it was clearly a careless error. My apologies.

    @ Anonymous 10:14

    In pointing out what you think is an error or omission in the article, you're setting yourself up for ridicule by taking a cheap shot at the armoured corps. Are you from the infantry? Well here's some advice for you: use your eyes, instead of mindlessly citing wikipedia, which everyone knows is not an authoritative source.

    Take a look at the photograph of the medal. Do you see any "sword of Shivaji"?

    No you don't. Because the PVC medal does not have one. All it has on one side is the state emblem (raised) and four vajras. On the other side is the name of the medal in English and Hindi.

    I've checked and I know they still teach observation and field craft in Infantry School.

    @ Anonymous 10:18

    See above. The "sword of Shivaji" is not on the PVC medal. It is a myth, probably put out by the Shiv Sena.

  12. @Broadsword

    You mean to say Shivaji's sword Bhawani is Infantry and it belongs to Shiva Sena while your "broadsword" is Indian!!

    Height of your speculative mind.

  13. OMG finally some mention of the Mud COprs !! How did it happen ?

  14. Sir Victoria Crosses aren't made up of of Russian cannons from crimean war, they are made out of Napolean's cannons.

  15. Dear Ajay,

    Very nice indeed to read about my Grandmother.

    There are a few differences of opinion, on these you would not be responsible as we do have an unusual and unique way of recording modern Indian military history.

    Notwithstanding, I am extremely proud to be reminded by your profound efforts on this blog on Nani's Centenary.

    I have provided a link to a blog maintained by my son, Sagat Peter Shaunik, where you shall find information on her husband.

    Bhowani Sword is very much part of the design; Nani repeatedly tolled me that Shivaji's Sword shall be immortalised in Indian Valour.

    I do not seek any opinion/ counter opinion/ response. We are family and proud of our heritage.

    Ajay, thank you so much for the sentiments expressed on her birth centenary.


    Gautam Shaunik

  16. Thanks for bringing such unheard facts of Indian history. It's sad that such details are seldom taught in schools. Need to update our curriculum.

  17. @ Gautam Shaunik

    No thanks required, I was only reminding Indians of an important part of our national heritage.

    As for Shivaji's sword, your grandmother might well have revered its symbolic and historical importance (and talked to you about that), she apparently decided not to include it in the medal. The photograph of the medal is there for all to see.

    It remain unclear how this myth about the Shivaji sword began. The official Indian Army description of the medal makes no mention of the Shivaji sword.

    And for lovers of Wikipedia (though I myself don't usually cite it as a source), I am pasting below what it has to say about this issue:

    "Savitribai gave Major General Hira Lal Atal, the design of the double Vajra, common in Tibet. Its a myth that the medal also carries images of the fearless warrior king Shivaji's sword Bhavani but this is a popular perpetuated myth. The Indian General Service Medal 1947 which contained the Bhavani sword was withdrawn later."

    This of course is irrelevant to the legacy that this remarkable lady, Savitri Bai Khanolkar, has left for Indian men-at-arms.

  18. Hinduism and certainly the other pagan religions of India will always be her Achillies Heel. Consider the Judeo Christian faith not for how it was foolishly thrust upon people by the Europeans and interpreted by man, but rather for its relationship with a Living God who is undeniably the Way, Truth and Eternal Life. For it is that acceptance of the Way, Truth and Life by Faith not Works which brings victory for a nation and her people, one who truly embrace the True Living God. Jehovah.

  19. After reading this I feel it is ridiculous that military-men are not allowed to marry women of other nationalities. One can understand about not being allowed to marry a Pakistani or a Chini. But it makes no sense to prohibit them marrying anyone else of their liking irrespective of nationality.

  20. For all the beating and crying, I still cant see the sword.

  21. Dear Gautam Shaunik, you are indeed fortunate to have a grandmother as inspired as Savitri Bai.

    The symbol is clearly a Tibetan representation of the Vajra. It is used to denote a human's renunication for a greater cause, like a monk's renunciation of worldly pleasures to devote oneself to God & serve Mankind.

    The Ramakrishna Mission also uses the same Vajra symbol for this very reason. You'll find the same Vajra symbol on the gate of Ramakrishna Math, Nagpur as well as embossed on many publications of the Vedanta Ashrama. To inspire humans to devote themselves for larger causes.

  22. The fact that the designer of the PVC was a European is the reason why we never find mention of her in our history books.

  23. Dear All

    Thanks to the writer for the article on Maaji and to all of you for the discussion thereafter. My name is Mahesh Vikram Khanolkar and I am the son of Savitribai Khanolkar.

    A few clarifications are required to clear up the air on the issue of Shivaji’s sword. I am aware that as soon as Gen Atalji requested her to create the medal for the highest gallantry award, her first instinct had been to build the medal around the Bhavani. However, she subsequently changed her mind to represent Dadichi’s sacrifice because it represented the highest sacrifice possible – that of one’s own life for the sake of victory on the battlefield. The Param Vir Chakra therefore does not contain Shivaji’s sword.

    What is not commonly known however is that Maaji did design another medal with Shivaji’s sword on it – the Kashmir General Service Medal, of which my father who commanded a Brigade was also a recipient. This medal contained a stylized version of Shivaji’s sword (straight, western version) on the obverse and the reverse consisted of the lotus that symbolized the peace that the sword was supposed to have brought forth.

    So yes, Maaji did design A medal with Shivaji’s sword on it, only it was not the Param Vir Chakra.

    Thank you once again for your interest.

    M V Khanolkar


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