The Airavatesvara temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Here the Lord Siva is known "Airavateshvara" (the protector of the elephant), because he was worshipped at this temple by Airavata, the white elephant of Indra.
Airavata, while suffering a change of color from a curse inflicted by sage Durvasa, had its white color restored by ablutions performed in this temple. This incident is commemorated by an image of Airavata with Indra seated on in an inner shrine.
Another stiry tells, that Isvara appeared there in the form of Rudraksha (holy beads) tree, which branches and leaves represented various deities and sages.
One more important story is about Yama, the God of Death, who was suffering from a curse of Rishi which caused burning sensation all over his body. Yama went on a pilgrimage to various shrines, including Darasuram. There he bathed in the tank in front of the temple. The waters of this tank have been got by casing therein of Siva sulam (trident). After a long penance at the spot, Yama is said to have been cured of his ailment, and he thereon obtained permission to built a temple and observe a festival (Mahautsavam) annually for ten days.
The temple tank is called "Yama teertham" and the image of Yama seated on a pitam (pedestal) is in inner shrine, with Rishi in attendance. Yama has said to made a vow that those who managed the temple would be kings and that whose who bathed in the tank would be cleansed of their sins and diseases.
Darasuram is located in close suburb of Kumbakonam.
During medieval period, Darasuram was known as Palaiyarai, ancient temple city and the Capital of the Colas. King Raja Kambeera Mamannan, Raja Raja Cola II (1146 A.D. to 1173 A.D) changed his capital from Gangaikonda Cholapuram to Palaiyarai and renamed it as Raja Raja Puram (at present it is Darasuram). There were 1000 Thaligal (temples) and also four padai veedus(Military Camps) on al the four directions of the Capital.
The temple was bilt by Rajaraja II. The temple is called Rajarajesvara in inscriptions of 12th century AD. Later inscriptions, of the 14th and end of the 15th century, give it the name Irarasuram. The name c does not appear before the drafting of the sthala purana, in the 15th or 16th century. It is not known exactly when the site began to be called Darasuram. At the time of the construction of the temple by Rajaraja II, the locality was called Rajaraja vilagam, and then, during the occupation of the region by the Pandhyas, Rajasuram, derived from Rajarajesvaram, which later gave Darasuram.
Airavatesvara temple is generally considered as one of the four great Cola temples because of its imposing dimensions, characteristic too of the Brihaddesvara temple of Tanjavur (built by Rajaraja I, 985-1014) and of Gangaikondacolapuram (built by Rajendra I, 1012-1044) as well as of Kampaharesvara of Tribhuvanam (Kulottunga III, son of Rajaraja II, 1178-1218). It is more specifically considered to be the model of the temple of Tribhuvanam.
The earliest inscription of the Airavatesvara indicates that it was finished by 1167 AD. The site of the construction was obviously not chosen for its religious prestige or for its antiquity but rather for its situation near Palaiyarai, the capital. This temple, founded by the royal dynasty, has not known any intense religious life but is still active.
Medieval Colas ruled from the mid-9th ti the 13th centuries AD. Many temples were built under their patronage. The portraits of kings and queens in stone or metal are found in temples of this period. Colas worshiped their royal ancestors and built temples and mandapas in their honor. Thus, the concept of "royal shrines" became common during their age. Those royal shrines were located in or near the royal capitals and were built under personal care and supervision of the ruler. The king and the members of royal families regularly worshipped in those temples. The temple was regarded as the symbol of royal power and prestige.
The first royal shrive is Vijayalayacola Isvara temple at Narthamalai near Pudukkottai. It was built by Vijayalaya, the first king of Medieval Cola dynasty, in the middle of 9th century. The second major Cola royal shrine is Brihaddesvara temple of Rajaraja I. The next royal shrine was built at Gangaikondaicolapuram By Rajendra I, the son of Rajaraja I.
Airatesvara temple at Darasuram erected by Rajaraja II (1150-1173 AD) and Kumpaharesvara temple at Tribhuvanam built by Kulottunga III (1178-1218) are the other royal Cola shrines.
The very name of each temple testifies elevation of the kingship to divinity. These temples and chief deities therein have been named after their respective builder-kings. The deity in Vijayalayas temple is Vijayalayacola Isvara (the God of Vijayalaya Cola). Similarly, the main Sivalinga in Rajendras temple is Gangaikondacola Isvara (the Lord of Gangaikindacola, i.e. Cola who conquered the Ganga; this title was given to Rajendra after his conquest of Northern kingdoms on the banks of Ganga).
Chief deity of Airavatesvara temple of Darasuram is (among the other names) is called as Rajarajesvara, after its builder Rajaraja II. Kampaharesvara temple in Tribhuvanam is also known as Tribhunaviresvaram after its builder who assumed the title Tribhuvana Vira Devar (the bold ruler of the three worlds) after he won the Pandhyas of Madurai in three successive wars.
The practice of erecting a separate sub-shrine for Candesa or Candikesvara, close to the main shrine of Siva, became common since the days of Rajaraja I. The placement of Candesa shrine close to pranala (pipe that drains out water after abhisheka, pouring water or milk on the idol) from Siva shrine is significant because Candesa is entitled to all the offerings made to God Siva. This mirrors identification of Cola ruler with Candesa, who as the dearest devotee of Siva deserves a place as close as possible to his Lord.
In medival period the temple was much larger. It had sapta veedhi (seven streets or courts, like in Srirangam), all of which disappeared by now. The temple stands as a single court (only remnant of the entrance to the third prakara decorated with large gopuram is still present).
A second enclosure whose wall has been completely destroyed (only the entrance pavilion remains) used to include the temple of the goddess (Amman temple) tank (Yama tirtham) with brick and mortar stairs.
The temple is built in granite; the superstructures of the entrance pavillion, as well as parts of those of the temple itself, are in brick. Vimana (gopuram or main temple tower) is 24 m high.
The temple comprises of six major elements: the chariot-mandapa (mukha mandapa or alankaras mandapa), the front mandapa (maha mandapa), the second mandapa (ardha mandapa), the passage, the vestibule and the sanctuary (garba griha).
The main consort of the deity is Periya Nayaki Amman. Her temple (also called Amman temple) is a detached temple situated to the north of the Airavateshvarar temple. This might have been a part of the main temple when the outer courts were complete. At present, it stands alone as a detached temple with the shrine of the Goddess standing in a single large court.
The south side of the front mandapam (pillared hall) is in the form of a huge chariot with large stone wheels drawn by horses. On the pillars of the chariot-mandapa there is a sequence from Scandapurana depicting the austerities of Parvati, her marriage with ?iva and the birth of their son Subramanya.
The pre-eminent theme of the iconography of the temple is dance and music. In 12th century Thalicherippendirgal (devadasi) were appointed by the king to develop fine arts especially music and dance in the temple during festival occasions.
There are many big sculptures on the walls of the temple depicting temple maidens performing different duties related with riligious services, like dance, music, holding camara (whisk).
The outer walls and columns are covered with middle-size bas-reliefs depicting dance, music, even gymnastic exercises.
Tiny bas-reliefs (like shown on the pictures below) are fit in between the major elements of the temple construction. It is just amazing how skilfully those tiny miniature are carved.
Anouther important themes depicted in sculpture are spiritual practices (different kinds of penance performed by rishis, nayanmars, sivacharyas) and different stories from Puranas.
Another important motif is Yali, mythical lion. This motif is used widely in sculpture of royal temples as the lion was the symbol of the ruling dynasty.
Different decorative elements, like those shown below, can be found among the major motifs and sculptures on the outer walls of the temple.