Things to expect during Vardavar: Armenian Water Festival

By Michael Chen
Aug. 7, 2018

The man across the street with the yellow tipped water gun notices me. For a moment our eyes meet and gradually he turns to face me, his weapon raises just slightly.  I stop walking and we both stand there waiting … and then we’re off.  I hop over a small metal fence beside me and head towards the street.  I could hear him pumping his water gun behind me, but I am already too far away.  I make it to the other side of the road and begin to round the corner. As I do I see three grown men with buckets. They look at me and before I could react a gallon of water douses me.  “Welcome to Armenia,” they say with a smile. 

This is Vardavar, one of the most interesting and unique holidays in Armenia. Vardavar, in essence, is a giant water fight. Young and old participate around Armenia, but in Yerevan, the capital of the country, it seems like the whole city is in it.  The biggest battles center around places where water is easily accessible, like Swan Lake or Republic Square. At places where water isn’t accessible vendors sometimes fill up giant tubs for people to use. Kids use everything from homemade water guns (bottles with a hole on the lid), to super-soakers, to buckets.  Those too cowardly to fight on the streets camp up in their apartments and dump water on the careless from the overhanging balconies. Even tatiks (grandmas) can’t avoid being hit on accident sometimes.  Most corners of large intersections are guarded by bands of men, waiting for individuals to walk by or cross the road. Families protect their children as they walk through the park strapped and loaded.  I wonder what they would do if they ran into one of the militant groups of teenagers we saw roaming the city.  Would the parents fight?  Or simply surrender themselves to a bucket of cold water. Vardavar is a merciless holiday, and no one is exempt.

Peace Corps Volunteers Playing Vardavar
Peace Corps Volunteers Playing Vardavar.

As some other Peace Corps Volunteers and I made our way from our hostel to the center of town, we were almost immediately preyed upon from above.  Two kids gleefully poured water on us from a third-floor balcony.  Across the street were a couple of men with buckets but luckily, they didn’t make us.  The scene felt eerily like the Purge movies, where one day out of the year laws were defunct and groups of people go around killing each other in gruesome ways.  We were even shot at from cars, before they sped away.  We walked through the streets warily, making sure to keep an eye on the balconies and corners, taking precautions by avoiding the main intersections and “check-points” where groups waited.  We didn’t get very far until we got chased down and soaked. When we finally arrived at Republic Square, the scene we saw is one which will be seared into my brain for years: everyone was absolutely drenched, screaming, laughing, and loving every moment of it.  It was a veritable “water fight orgy” as my friend described it.  

As we were walking back, all of a sudden, we heard what sounded like a bomb go off a couple of feet from us. We looked up and saw people throwing giant plastic bags of water at us from what seemed to be the 10th story. We ran for it with bombs going off around us.  One hit a parked car by us and I was shocked that the force didn’t break the window.

Vardavar is celebrated 98 days after Easter and though is now a Christian tradition, the holiday’s origins date back to Pagan times and is associated with Astghik, the goddess of water, love, and family.  It is one of Armenia’s most cherished holidays. For those of you uninitiated, here are some tips for next year: have weapons ready so you can fight back, leave your phone at home, and lean into the chaos. It’s worth it, I promise.

Michael Chen