Unlike the temples in Orissa, these shrines are not the result of a slow, concerted development spread over several centuries, but rather a brilliant, although comparatively short phase in Hindu temple architecture when intense religious feeling and aesthetic talent combined to produce buildings of great beauty.
One of the most unique features of the Khajuraho temples is that, contrary to custom, they are not enclosed within a wall. Instead, they stand high on a terrace of solid masonry, as though in an effort to rise above their temporal surroundings. In addition, the constituent, parts are not built as separate units but present an architectural synthesis of striking unity. The Khajuraho temples are, however, not as imposing in size as the Orissan, but achieve the same grandeur through their graceful proportions and superb surface decoration. The largest of these is only about a hundred feet in length. As a rule there are three main compartments, namely, the garbhagriha, the mandapa and the ardhamandapa or entrance portico, arranged in the manner of a cross. The antarala, the mahamandapa or the transepts and the perambulatory passage supplement the other compartments in the more developed examples.
The aspiring quality associated with most styles of temple architecture is emphasised in the Khajuraho group to a marked degree. The entire mass of granite or sandstone, of which most of these are constructed, appears to have an upward movement, the effect of loftiness being further enhanced by a number of pronounced vertical projections. The range of open porches with overhanging eaves running horizontally around the temple serves to let in light, thus throwing a band of vivid shadow over the entire composition.
The exterior of the temples, decorated with parallel friezes in high relief, displays a rare wealth of human and divine forms, pulsating with life and warmth. They present varied themes of myriad interests. The graceful animation of these life-like forms, the skill with which they are executed on stone walls, and the vast variety and ingenuity of the techniques employed are unparalleled in any other similar style of temple architecture.
The tenuous, flowing lines of the sikhara give it an elegant and refined quality. The solid strength of these temples is further enhanced by the graceful sikharas. The halls of the Khajuraho temples are richly adorned with sculptures.
In addition to the oversailing courses of masonry, the highly sculptured ceiling is supported by four pillars, one at each corner of the hall which bear heavily ornamented bracket capitals- The pillars are carved above and below, with grotesque half human figures of dwarfs and griffins. In the spaces in between are statuettes of sculptured feminine forms in attitudes of enchanting grace and loveliness. The sharp contrast presented by the forbidding appearance of the former and the pervasive beauty of the latter perhaps symbolises the triumph of beauty over ugliness, or that of the spiritual over the bestial.
Eroticism is a recurrent theme in the shrines at Khajuraho. A number of different theories have been put forward to explain this. The most commonly accepted theory is that the many erotic groups depicted here with such abandon represent the mithuna ritual of the Tantric cult according to which personal salvation can be attained only through experience, both sensual and spiritual. Yet another theory holds that since such sculptures are usually found on the exterior surfaces of a temple and are absent from the interior, it may be concluded that they are meant to test the devotion of the worshipper or to warn him against entering the sanctum until he has conquered carnal desire. Whatever the significance of these sculptures may be, it is fairly clear from their intrinsic artistic merit that the sculptors who fashioned them found the temple walls an easy canvas for the depiction of such an elemental theme as love between man and woman.
There can be seen a cluster of 12 pillars standing a little apart from the main group. This is all that remains of the Jain temple known as Ghantai. These have attracted considerable attention on account of their attic beauty. Along with Jain temples, this south-eastern group also includes Brahmanical ones such as the Dula-dev and the Chaturbhuj. The Kunwar Math, lying south of the Jain group near Kurar Nala, is perhaps the finest example of this class.
The remains of temples, belonging to the same period and of the same type, have been found as far as Rewa in Madhya Pradesh (e.g., the Visvanath temple at Maribag).to Jhansi, and as far as Osia in Rajasthan. The Shiva temple at Baroli believed to date from the 9th or 10th century, compares very well with contemporary structures in Orissa, both from the point of view of richness of design and fineness of sculpture.