On November 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 January 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 army officer Vikram Khanolkar, who she had met and fallen in love with while he was training in the UK. Being also in love with the spirituality of the country, Yvonne became an Indian, adopted the name Savitri Bai, immersed herself in Hindu scriptures and took a degree from the Nalanda University. Soon after Independence, the army's Adjutant General, Major-General Hiralal Atal, asked her to design the PVC medal.
Saturday is the birth centenary of Savitri Bai Khanolkar, who was born 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 at 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 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's first Republic Day, along with the other four PVC recipients of the 1947-48 Kashmir war - Lance Naik Karam Singh; 2nd Lieutenant RR Rane; Naik Jadunath Singh; and Havaldar Major Piru Singh Shekhawat. 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 became a nun of the Ramakrishna Mission, until her death in 1990.