"If life itself is a journey, the final leg of that journey has special importance, and many people yearn to go on pilgrimage to a dham or a tirtha as they approach the end.

"The perpetual pilgrims of India are the sannyasis, the ascetics who, presumably, have lived fully through the generative phases of life — having done their work and enjoyed their families, having seen children and grandchildren. Then they have 'cast off' from settled society, indeed they have ritually died to that life, in order to live a life of renunciation. Sannyasis are the ones who have detached themselves from place, from the village or town from which they came. They move among the holy places. As the monk Agehananda Bharati put it, these sannyasis and sadhus 'are patrons at those places, not clients.' They cluster at the crossings, the tirthas, especially during the great melas, but they come not as the lay pilgrim, with the goal of darshan or their own spiritual benefit. In an ideal world, they give embodied evidence of a spiritual goal that crosses beyond birth and death, beyond the world of 'getting and keeping' that typifies settled earthly life.

"A pilgrim setting off from home at any stage of life becomes a kind of temporary sannyasi, having set forth from the security of family and village with only the bundle one can carry. Especially in pre-modern times, the tirthayatra was not a journey with a certain date of return. It was fraught with the uncertainties, discomforts, and dangers of the road. Pilgrims also direct themselves toward a goal, a crossing that takes them, at least temporarily, out of the day-to-day world of getting and keeping. Seeking out the crossing is especially profound for the elderly, who are looking inevitably toward the final crossing."