Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Holiday of Vartavar (Վարդավառ)

Spain has its Tomatina tomato-throwing festival, and Armenia has its nation-wide water fight, known as Vartavar (the festival of roses). Here is a video, featuring some good friends, that provides a glimpse into what the day is like:
I arrived in Armenia in late August 2011, so I had missed the festival of Vartavar, which takes place in July. It was explained to me, on a day I was complaining about the heat, as a nation-wide water fight, where the most popular vessel for carrying/throwing the water are old-fashioned buckets. It sounded cute and I was disappointed to have missed it.

Fast-forward almost a year later and I found myself still in Armenia, and July had officially arrived. About a week before the festival, I realized I would get to experience it. The warnings from local friends and friends who had experienced it were simply not to carry any electronics with you as no mercy is shown on that day. Simple enough.

On that day, in July of 2012, I casually left my apartment around noon with my room mate to eat lunch at a Lebanese restaurant that had just opened up. I remember assuming we would be attacked the moment we left our apartment, and was almost disappointed that we could leave the backyard of our apartment without any drama. I commented on that to my room mate. About 1 minute later, I was completely startled by a powerful force. I was officially drenched. It had come from above. I looked up to see a nene/tatik cackling while holding an empty bucket, while the drops still continued to fall down on my confused face. It had begun.

On the maybe 15 minute walk to the restaurant, bucket after bucket splashed us with water, to the point where we could just not get any wetter so it almost became frustrating. Groups of (usually) boys and men would surround us, each making sure to splash us relentlessly. I slipped and stubbed my toe trying to escape one particular attack. I didn't get re-drenched but I would have taken that over limping for the next few days. We stubbornly continued our way to the restaurant, realizing now that we probably wouldn't be allowed in since we were soaking and it was a place we planned to sit down in. Escaping more water-up-the-nose was worth the try. The workers had no problem and we had a delicious Lebanese lunch, completely soaked. I realized then I had no idea what the story behind Vartavar was, and would soon discover, because of a translation job, it had many possible roots.

One of the explanations behind Vartavar comes from the pagan Armenian god of water, love, and fertility, Astghik. According to ancient legend, Astghik spread love to the people by sprinkling water, infused with rose petals, on them, and also gave roses as gifts. Being splashed with the water was seen to be cleansing. Different regions in Armenia celebrate it differently, and there are many church services involved, but it is most recognized by the water-pouring aspect. Some people also claim that the holiday is connected with the story of Noah's Ark - and that when it landed on Mount Ararat, Noah and his family came out of the boat, and Noah told his children to splash water on each other as a reminder of the flood. The explanation I like best is the one connected with the time being associated with agricultural abundance, so Vartavar was essentially a prelude to the harvest.

Whatever the story behind it may be, I find Vartavar to be one of those holidays that are so much better in theory than in practice. Being splashed on a humid day, all day, with everyone--regardless of age, sounded so cute. However, it tends to be an excuse for boys and men to harass and touch women in ways that would simply not slide on any other day of the year. The buckets of water tend to be focused on the chest regions too of course. I have some female friends who refuse to participate because of their experiences, and others who leave home ready to combat and splash-attack back.

This year the holiday falls on my birthday, and I haven't decided whether a mini-trip to Sevan Lake for the day or staying in Yerevan would be best, but, regardless, when the first bucket hits my unsuspecting face*, I will choose to focus on Vartavar as a cleansing holiday focused on abundance (screw fertility).


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