The Sangam was a college of assembly of Tamil poets held probably under chiefly or royal patronage. But we do not know the number of Sangams or the period for which they were held. It is stated in a Tamil commentary of the middle of the 8th century AD that three Sangams lasted for 9,990 years . They were attended by 8,598 poets and had 197 Pandya kings as patrons. All this is a wild exaggeration. All that can be said is that a Sangam was held under royal patronage in Madurai.
The available Sangam literature, which was produced by these assemblies, was compiled in circa AD 300-600. But parts of this literature look back to at least the second century AD.
The Sangam literature can roughly be divided into two groups, narrative and didactic.
- The narrative texts are called Melkannakku or Eighteen major Works. They comprise 18 major works consisting of eight anthologies and ten idylls.
- The narrative texts are considered works of heroic poetry in which heroes are glorified and perpetual wars and cattle raids frequently mentioned.
- The texts suggest that war booty was an important source of livelihood. They also state that when a hero dies he is reduced to a piece of stone. It may have led to the later practice of raising hero stones called virakal in honour of the heroes who died fighting for kine and other objects.
- The narrative Sangam texts also give some idea of the state formation in which the army consisted of the groups of warriors and the taxation system and judiciary appeared in a rudimentary state.
- The texts also tell us about trade, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers.
- They speak of several towns such as Kanchi, Korkai, Madurai, Puhar, and Uraiyur. Of them, Puhar of Kaveripattanam was the most important.
- The didactic works are called Kilkanakku or 18 Minor Works.
- The didactic texts cover the early centuries of the Christian era and prescribe a code of conduct not only for the king and his court but also for various social groups and occupations.
The Sangam references to towns and economic activities are attested by Greek and Roman accounts and by the excavation of the Sangam sites. A good deal of Sangam texts, including the didactic was the work of the brahmana Prakrit-Sanskrit scholars.
All this could have been possible only after the fourth century AD when Brahmanas appear in good numbers under the Pallavas. The texts also refer to grants of villages and also to the descent of kings from solar and lunar dynasties: this practice started in north India around the sixth century AD.