The temple, built by Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century CE is a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site, along with the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur, the Gangaikondacholisvaram Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram that are referred to as the Great Living Chola Temples.
The Airavatesvarar temple is one among a cluster of eighteen medieval era large Hindu temples in the Kumbakonam area of Thanjavur District. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. It also reverentially displays Vaishnavism and Shaktism traditions of Hinduism, along with the legends associated with Nayanmars. Nayanmars are the Tamil Bhakti movement saints of Shaivism.
The stone temple incorporates a chariot structure, and includes major Vedic and Puranic deities such as Indra, Agni, Varuna, Vayu, Brahma, Surya, Vishnu, Saptamtrikas, Durga, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganga, Yamuna, Subrahmanya, Ganesha, Kama, Rati and others. Shiva’s consort has a dedicated shrine in the temple called the Periya Nayaki Amman temple.
At present, parts of the temple such as the Gopuram is in ruins, and the main temple and associated shrines stand alone. It has two sun dials namely morning and evening sun dials which can be seen as wheels of the chariot.
The temple continues to attract large gatherings of Hindu pilgrims every year during Magha.
This temple is a storehouse of art and architecture and has some exquisite stone carvings. Although this temple is much smaller than the Brihadeesvara Temple or the Gangaikondacholapuram Temple, it is more exquisite in detail. The elevation and proportions of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture.
On the outer walls of the main Sanctum are sculptures of various Hindu deities, with the middle one of each side showing Shiva in different aspects.