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 July 25 , 2003 




Wet and Wild: Ancient tradition of Vartavar arrives Sunday


A wet welcome awaits on the streets.

They wait like little bandits, these children armed with buckets and bottles of water on this single day of cultural dispensation, when they are more or less expected to douse unsuspecting passersby.

One day a year, behavior that might ordinarily evoke strong discipline is tolerated - if not encouraged - among the youth of Armenia, upholding a tradition that pre-dates the republic's fame as the first Christian nation.

Welcome to Vartavar. The word itself has many definitions, and so does the holiday. But one element is common: water. And the holiday, mercifully falling at the hottest time of the year, means getting wet.

Every year it is celebrated on a Sunday. And this coming Sunday is the annual event. And if you happen to be in Armenia on that day, either plan to stay inside or plan to get soaked.

"It is a celebration of beauty and youth," says 52-year old Anyuta Hovsepyan. "It is the day when young lovers throw water on each other. In the villages, the celebration is even more interesting since the roots of this tradition are deeper".

Ah, the roots. They do go deep.

Pagans initiated Vartavar, a dedication to the goddesses Astghik and Anahit and a means of symbolizing purity and fertility.

Satenik Poghossian, 18, has been told that the tradition comes from a fable according to which the goddess Astghik was bathing and her clothing was stolen and she was forced to cover herself with rose petals. From this event comes the name "Vartavar".

According to another Armenian tradition, it was forbidden to eat apples until the day of Vartavar. Therefore, on the day of the celebration, apples were given as gifts to one another.

When Armenia adopted Christianity in 301, it modified the meaning to include symbols ranging from the Great Flood to the transfiguration of Christ.

Some say the pouring of water from little children is a baptism of sorts. Others say they are little devils for doing it.

In general, it is a day of spirited fun, when the squeals of children mix with the cries of their victims for a good-hearted release from summer's heat, regardless of whether participants know the tradition's foundation.

And while it is largely a youth day, many adults also join the water wars.

"I am certainly going to participate because of my grandchildren. I know it is a religious celebration and I want to participate each year as a way of preserving this tradition," says 71-year old Aramayis Ghazarian.

In contrast to other celebrations linked to religious events, Vartavar does not have a fixed date, but changes according to the Church calendar.

Vartavar spreads across the country in a wave of insanity.

Albert Hovanessian, 36, of Byurakan says his village waits impatiently for Vartavar.

"Since the celebration is a day of happiness and love, I definitely participate in the festivities believing that, getting wet on that day symbolizes prosperity for the coming year."

The tradition is especially popular in the regions of Lori and Tavoush.

"The children block the streets leading to the village and wet those who refuse to give them money," says 47-year old Albert Arakelyan, of Davoush. "Many families gather in the fields, they feast on a lamb they sacrifice and they dance and sing during the day."

In contrast to Tavoush, in Echmiadzin people do not get the chance to gather in the fields to feast, because the children are always waiting to wet them. Even when visitors come out of buses, children mercilessly throw water on them in surprise. And even staying at home sometimes may not be the perfect solution.

Tradition comes by the bucket at Vartavar.

"Last year I stayed at home in order to avoid getting wet," says Gayane Mkrtchyan, of Etchmiadzin. "They knocked on my door and when I opened it, I was soaked by my neighbors. For a moment I got mad, but seeing my neighbors' excitement made me forget my anger and join along with the festivities."

Not everyone, however, enjoys and participates in this accepted and exciting tradition. During the day of Vartavar, one may encounter many wet and unhappy people, specifically drivers.

Robert Martirossyan, 21, says the water fun should have its limits.

"It is a nice tradition and it can be fun if people do not take advantage," he says. "I have seen some people throwing water into cars, leading to traffic accidents and fights."

In any case, Vartavar has no rules and regulations. First floor residents carry umbrellas when on their balconies, for fear of getting wet by the neighbors above.

Each year, when people are about to be soaked from head to toe, they don't have time to think about the origins. Their main goal is to either enjoy this hot summer ritual or at least be grateful that it only comes once a year.

And in the capital, this Vartavar might prove an especially memorable time.

Every street in the city center is under construction, leaving sidewalks as little more than dirt paths. With the anticipated flood of Vartavar water, it is likely to be a muddy Sunday. Who knows what new tradition could spring from such possibilities?

 


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