Introduction

Arka is one of the revered plants in India. It is known as Arka in Sanskrit, meaning “radiance of the Sun”. It is known as Madaar in Hindi, Vellai Erukku in Tamil, Giant Milkweed or Swallow Wort, in English. As the stem and the leaves yield a milky substance (latex) it is known as Milk weed. The other names of Arka are: Aka, Akado, Akanda, Akda, Akra, Alarka, Arbre-a-Soie, Arkamu, Badabadam, Byclospa, Ekke or Ekkada Ele in Kannada, Ekkemal, Erikka, Erikku, Erukku, Jilledu or Mandaramu in Telegu, Khok, Khark, Mandara, Mudar, Surya pattra and  Yercum.

The botanical name is Calotropis gigantea, Asclepias gigantea. It belongs to the family of Apocynaceae/ Asclepiadaceae.

Description of the plant

It is a small to medium shrub which grows up to 3- 5 mts in height with thick branches. The flowers which bloom in groups are either purple or white in colour. The white coloured flowers are known as “alarka” or Swetark in Ayurveda and are said to be of superior quality. Each flower consists of five petals and a small crown in the centre which holds the stamens. The leaves are large, oval shaped, opposite, spreading and whitish green in colour. The plant has a milky stem (latex). The fruits are small, thick green with seeds in fleshy follicles covered with white woolly pubescence.

The plant is found largely in the Asian sub continent in Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and China. It is found on dry waste land.

The plant is propagated by insects.

Puranic reference

Arka is another name for Lord Surya as mentioned in Surya Ashtotra.  Once when the gods were performing a sacrificial ritual for Lord Surya, the milk spilled. From the spilled milk, sprang a plant which the gods called as Arka.

In Mahabharata, it is mentioned that Sage Ayoda Daumya’s disciple -Upamanya, lost his sight after eating the leaves of the plant which in Sanskrit is known as Arka.

There is a reference to Arka in Bhagavad Gita. Ch 11.11

Kirīinaḿ gadinaḿ cakriaḿ ca
Tejo-rāśiḿ sarvato dīptimantam
Paśyāmi tvāḿ durnirīkyaḿ samantād
Dīptānalārka-dyutim aprameyam

Meaning: Your form is difficult to see because of its glaring effulgence, spreading on all sides, like blazing fire or the immeasurable radiance of the sun. Yet I see this glowing form everywhere, adorned with various crowns, clubs and discs.

Ayurvedic Uses:

Arka is a traditional medicinal plant. The root, seeds, latex, leaves and flowers of the Arka plant have immense medicinal properties. Ayurveda describes the plant as having the following properties.

Rasa: (Taste)- Bitter (Tikta)  and Pungent (Katu)

Vipaka (Effect)- post digestion

Virya- Hot potency (Ushna)

Characteristics: Light, dry and sharp

In Charaka Samhita, Charaka has categorised arka as “bhedaniya- accumulation breaking herb, svedopaga- an adjunct (supplement) to sweating therapy and Vamanopaga- an adjunct to emesis (vomiting). It is cited to be useful for external application, in ascites” (fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity, caused due to liver diseases)

The chief properties of Arka are emetic (vomiting), purgative, (laxative) appetiser, digestant, irritant, pain killing and abortificient (inducing abortion), anthelmintic (treat infections with parasitic worms) antimicrobial and anti-diarrheal properties.

It is used in ascites, tumours and dermatoses (any skin defect or lesion). An extract of the plant is used to treat ailments such as tuberculosis, leprosy, rheumatisms, syphilis, fever, indigestion, cough, eczema, vomiting, diarrhoea, asthma, and elephantiasis. Arka acts as a cardiac stimulant, thus effective in alleviating cardiac problems. The herb is also used to treat hysteria, epilepsy, fits paralysis and convulsions.

Root- Bark: The root bark of the Arka plant is used to reduce fever (febrifuge), treat infections caused by parasitic worms (anthelmintic), as depurative(detoxing or cleansing the body), expectorant, dysentery like symptoms and laxative. The dried root powder is used to treat asthma, bronchitis and dyspepsia (indigestion). It is a panacea for syphilitic infections. (sexually transmitted diseases) The root skin along with honey is recommended for chronic dermatoses. For the treatment of Oedema, a mixture of the roots with Triphala and honey is very effective.

The root bark is highly effective in treating ascites. The root bark increases the bile secretions in the liver, improves difficult/painful urination, effective in treating abdominal disorders and hemorrhoids, (piles).

Leaves: The leaves are used to treat paralysis, arthralegia, (pain in the joints) swellings, and intermittent fevers. Leaves, used as bandage alleviates pain and swelling in arthritis and filariasis(a parasitic disease caused by thread like round worms). For the treatment of arthritis pain, warm mustard oil is spread over arka leaf and the leaf is keep on the low heat, till it becomes soft and then pressed on the area of pain. This is said to bring quick results. When the powder of the leaves is sprinkled on the wound, it hastens the healing. Latex from the leaves is used to treat corn on the skin. For abdominal pain, leaves smeared with castor oil slightly should be kept on a low flame till the leaf becomes soft. The leaf when pressed against the abdomen will mitigate abdomen pain.

The leaves are poisonous, thus not eaten by animals.

Latex: The latex of Arka contains cardio glycosides, volatile fatty acids and calcium oxalate. Latex (milky white fluid produced by the cells of the plants) along with mustard oil is useful to treat skin depigmentation. (Loss of pigmentation) Latex is also used to treat hair fall and baldness. Latex is an effective remedy for piles. A fibre used in the treatment of piles known as Kshar Sutra is prepared out of latex. Latex alleviates tooth ache. For the treatment of arthritis, a few drops of the latex along with some Batasa, a sweet is advised. Latex has purgative properties which act as a gastrointestinal irritant, thus effective in the treatment of ascites.

Flowers:  The flowers taste bitter and astringent. They aid in digestion, stomachic (tones the stomach and improves appetite) anthelmintic and as a tonic. The white flowers are used to treat kapha and vata doshas. The purple flowers are used to treat kapha and pitta doshas. The flowers when taken as tonic are helpful in treating leprosy, asthma and elephantiasis. For the treatment of Asthma and cough, the flowers and the root skin are effective.

The leaves and stem when cut yield a milky juice used as cattle poison.

Arka Tailam or oil prepared from Arka is used to treat eczema and eruptive skin diseases. The oil is an antidote for snake and insect bites. Arka Tailam is highly beneficial for treating pain and swelling in case of arthritis, besides used for treating the ringworms on the scalp. The medicated oil of the Arka plant is useful to treat deafness.

Other uses: Arka yields a fibre, (commercially known as Bowstring in India) used in the making of ropes, carpets, finishing nets and sewing threads.

Floss from the seeds is used for stuffing purposes.

A fermented mixture of Arka with salt is used to remove goat’s hair and sheep skin. Goat’s hair is used in the production of “nari leather” and sheep skin in making leather that is used in book binding.

Significance

On the day of Rathasaptami, (the day when the Sun’s chariot turns North) several people place Arka leaves on their head (one leaf),  two leaves on shoulders, two on knees and two on foot while taking bath.

The following Shloka is recited while taking bath with the Arka leaves:

Saptha Saptha Maha Saptha,

Saptha Dweepa Vasundara

Saptha Arka Parna Maadaya,

Sapthamyam Snana Maachareth

The Sun Lord bestows happiness and success to people who take bath with Arka leaves.

The Sun Temple in Konark is referred to as Arka Thirtha.

Lord Ganesha is said to reside in the roots of the plant. The Arka plant is special to Lord Ganesha. Arka- Ganapathi, the Lord who is carved out of Arka leaves is worshipped at many places.

Lord Ganesha is said to reside in the Muladhara Chakra. Thus roots of the plant are held in the hands of women undergoing child birth, (in several tribal areas) as it is believed to ease pain at the time of delivery.

Wherever the roots of the plant are found, it will bring prosperity.

Arka Vivaha:  If the planets in the horoscope of a man are placed in such way that, he loses his first wife or wives one after another to death, then a ceremonial marriage with the Arka plant is performed, before the individual can marry for the third time. It is believed that marriage with the Arka plant will get one rid of widowhood.

The gun powder used in ancient war fare composed of 4 to 6 parts of saltpetre, one part of sulphur, and one part of charcoal of arka, sruhi and other trees burnt in a pit and reduced to powder.

The plant is also considered sacred to Lord Shiva. On certain auspicious days, the Arka leaves are offered to Lord Shiva.

Arka Bhasma, sacred ash, made from the roots of the plant is applied when the Sun is ill placed in the horoscope. When the Sun is ill placed in the horoscope, then the individual will have low self confidence and will have negative result. Applying Arka Bhasma will ameliorate the condition and will help the individual lead a happy life.