From the eighth century CE, Nagara styles in the north began evolving in parallel to the Dravidian in the south. Orissa on the east coast and the region of Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west and central India represent two distinctive Nagara type of temple architecture. The crowning achievement of the western and central style is a group of temples at Khajuraho in Bundelkhand in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Of the 85 temples, built (950 – 1050) by the Chandella Rajput rulers, only about 20 remain in good state of preservation. The first major royal edifice, the Lakshmana temple (954) was built by Yasovarman Chandella to celebrate his independence from his Gurjara-Pratihara (710 – 1027) overlords of north-central India. These Gurjara-Pratiharas (known for their open pavilion temples) were key players along with the Rashtrakutas (753 – 982) of the Deccan and Palas of Bengal (750 – 1174) in the struggle for power and hegemony.
Khajuraho, the Chandella capital was a flourishing cultural centre where poets, musicians, grammarians and playwrights all resided with affluent Jain merchants and court officials. Extensive religious establishments, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, exercised considerable social power, encouraging lavish spending on temples and shrines. The Chandellas are also known for patronizing public works like reservoirs and their temples represent different belief systems. The Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples of Khajuraho have negligible architectural differences of sectarian origins. Indeed they collectively represent the apogee of the central variant of the Nagara style.
The Kandariya Mahadeo, the Lakshmana and the Visvanatha are the most fully developed at Khajuraho, and along with other temples have some common features. They are oriented towards the east, and instead of the customary enclosure walls, they stand on high and solid masonry terraces. A compact architectural synthesis is achieved in the structures by the high flight of steps, leading to the terraces. The ground plan of most of the Khajuraho group is like a Latin cross, with the long axis from east to west, and the entrance being on the east. This shape is divided into the usual three main compartments: the cella or the garbhagriha, an assembly hall or the mandapa and the entrance portico or the ardhmandapa. In addition to these are the antarala or the vestibule to the cella, and in the more developed examples, the transcepts or mahamandapa together with the processional passage around the cella are as well integrated.
The mass or volume of this temple type at Khajuraho, like the Brihadisvara, too moves clearly towards an upward direction, its trend is towards height. The elevation of these temples resolves into three main parts: the lofty terrace or the high basement, the second part comprising the walls and openings of the interior compartments and the final section of a grouping of roofs, culminating in the graceful shikhara. The soaring impulse is further accentuated by a number of vertical projections, leading the eye upwards.
The architectural treatment of these three sections, are ingeniously treated as well. A series of mouldings lighten the plinth, the spreading base of which seems to grip the pavement of the terrace, like the roots of a tree. The central section of the walls and openings of the interiors are treated by the use of solids of walls as well as voids of horizontal range of window openings, thus bringing in light and air. This feature at the same time throws a band of light and shadow on the surface, enhancing the structure’s beauty. This is best exemplified in the balconied windows of Kandariya Mahadeo. This central zone of the exterior has another outstanding feature, a decorative motif of two or three parallel friezes, filling in the wall spaces between the openings. They follow the alternate projections and recesses of the walls and are carried around the building. Human figures, both ideal and mundane are depicted in these friezes, the entire surface being covered, often in erotic postures. Kandariya Mahadeo alone has some 650 figures, moulded in high relief on its outer walls, the iconography conforming to the Shaiva Sddhanta Tantric sect.
In the final section, there are, in these temples, separate roofs for each compartment. Each roof of the structures follows a pattern. The smallest and the lowest is on top of the portico, next in height is on the central hall, the two sweeping up in line with the mass to the tall shape of the shikhara, surmounting the whole. The Khajuraho roofs are domical, unlike the Orissan pyramidal, but their surface texture in horizontal strata is much the same. All this grouping of roofs gives the appearance of a centripetal movement towards the spire, the high pinnacle. The spires of Khajuraho are most refined and elegant. They have a decisive incline as they mount up. The grace is further enhanced by the balanced distribution of the miniature turrets or urusringas that are superimposed on the sides to break the mass, thus lending a more melodic outline to the volume.
The interiors of Khajuraho, unlike the Orissan temples are profusely ornamented with sculpture. The ceiling treatment of the mandapas is especially to be noted. The average size of mandapas at Khajuraho is only 25 square feet but to support the mass of masonry above, four pillars, one in each corner, with four beams in the shape of a square framework were put as a support under the ceiling. The system is simple but structurally sound. These surfaces in turn are overlaid with ornament and sculpture. The capital of pillars, the architraves above the capitals and the ceiling in particular is teeming with figures of grotesques, dwarfs and humans. The ceiling designs are geometrical circles and semicircles, deeply carved in a swirling pattern.
A notable characteristic of Khajuraho temples, like in Orissa, is the use of erotic sculpture. The strategically placed erotic sculptures have been interpreted differently. One view relates them to Tantric practices, as Khajuraho was a centre of various Tantric sects and the erotic motif stands for a fertility symbol, an auspicious alamkara (ornamentation). They have also been interpreted as ‘symbolical-magical diagrams, or yantras’ designed to appease malevolent spirits. However, some scholars disagree with this viewpoint as a good number of motifs cannot be identified solely as tantric.
The 12 Vaishnava and Shaiva temples to the northwest of the site form the most important of the group at Khajuraho. Among these, the Kandariya Mahadeo is the largest and the most representative of the lot. Its shikhara reaches a height of 102 feet above the platform and has seven projections (panchratha). The much smaller in size are the Lakshmana temple and the Shiva temple of Visvanatha and the Vishnu temple of Chaturbuj. The temple of Devi Jagadamba, dedicated to Goddess Kali, was originally a Vishnu shrine. Temples dedicated to the Sun god, to the boar incarnation of Vishnu (varaha), the Matangeswara and Parvati temples are other notable examples.
Similar to these Brahmanical temples are the 6 Jain temples to the southeast of Khajuraho. There is a complete absence of window openings here, though parallel friezes of statues occur. The Parsvanatha is the largest in this group. The sanctum contains an ornamental throne and a sculptured bull, the emblem of Adinatha, the first of the Jain Tirthankaras. The Ghantai with its cluster of 12 pillars is another unique example. At this site are some Brahmanical temples as well. The Duladeo, the Chaturbhuj and the Kunwar Math are some fine examples that fall into this group.