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A Royal homecoming

By Chandani Kirinde Sunday Times June 16 2002

It's taken them 600 years to return to the country of their forefathers but for the Chinese descendants of a Sri Lankan king on a brief visit here, it feels like they've come back to their motherland. Their visit here is the result of a concerted effort both by Chinese historians and archaeologists as well as their Sri Lankan counterparts to trace the family after the accidental find of several gravestones in the Fujian province of China. This find was what first brought to light the existence of a family in China with connections to Sri Lankan kings.

Among those visiting Sri Lanka was Prince Shih Lai Fa and his sister, Princess Xu Yine who is said to be a 19th generation descendant of Parakramabahu VI who ruled from Kotte during the early part of the 15th century. Mr. Fa was accompanied by his wife and three children.

"It's difficult for me to even speak without getting emotional. I am so happy to be here," said Ms. Yine. The others too expressed similar sentiments. "It's like I am back in my motherland after many years. We are very sad to leave," said Mr. Fa.

According to historian Professor M. Rohanadeera the gravestones in China first discovered in 1996, referred to the person, buried there as the "deceased father from Ceylon...." After the discovery, Sri Lankan archaeologists and historians were informed of this find and attempts were made to corroborate the evidence linking the find to the royal family of that era.

Tracing the descendants was not an easy task. The Museum of Overseas Communication History in China which undertook the study of the gravestones placed an advertisement in a newspaper in the Fujian area asking people with the "shi" family name to contact them.

Ms.Yine was the first to contact the museum but was hesitant to come out in public. But she and her brother were persuaded by the officials to help them in their investigations and by tracing old records and documents, a link was established between them and the Sri Lankan prince who settled there nearly 600 years ago.

According to Professor Rohanadeera, Ceylon's history books have recorded that envoys were sent by King Parakramabahu to China. In this instance, the King is said to have sent his son Ba Lai Na as an envoy to China in 1459. During the son's absence, the throne was usurped by the grandson and this resulted in the Prince staying on in the Fujian province. He had decided to marry a local girl and was given the family name of Shi by the King Tian Shan of the Ming Dynasty who ruled over China during that period. However, there is some dispute among historians as to whether it was Parakramabahu VI of Kotte or Dedigama Parakramabahu who sent his son as an envoy to China in 1459.

Several historians including Dr. S. Paranavithana have written that it was Parakramabahu VI of Jayawardhanapura who sent envoys to China starting from around 1416 although Professor Rohanadeera is of the opinion it was another Parakramabahu who ruled consequently from Dedigama during the same period who sent his son to China in 1459.

Dr. Rohanadeera said it is known history that the Ming Dynasty in China was seriously involved in Sri Lankan politics during the early part of the 15th century. A Chinese general, Cheng Ho, who first visited Ceylon in 1405 had been insulted by the Sinhalese King, Veera Alakeswara who ruled during the time and had returned to his country vowing to avenge the insult. He had returned in 1408 and taken the King, Queen and many others as prisoners to China. The Chinese Emperor had pardoned them but said the crown must be taken away from the captured king and chose one "Yehi-panai-na" to govern Sri Lanka.

Dr. Rohanadeera argues that there were two contemporary King Parakramabahus ruling the country during the first half of the 15th century and with the new Chinese evidence available, it is more likely that it was Dedigama Parakramabahu who sent his son as an envoy to China in 1459.

For the Chinese descendants of the Royal family, being accepted in a country which they are visiting for the first time is a gift in itself. " Can I take some sand from the beach here when I go," Ms.Yine asks her Lankan interpreter.