According to the Sangam legends first described in the Irayanaar Agapporul (11th century AD) and a commentary to it by Nakkirar. There were three Sangams spanning thousands of years. The first Sangam, whose seat was then Madurai (southern Madurai), lasted a total of 4440 years and 4449 poets, which included some gods of the Hindu pantheon, took part in it. Lord Shiva presides it. The second Sangam was convened in Kapatapuram, which finds mention in Valmiki Ramayana (Kishkinda Kanda 42:13). This Sangam lasted for 3700 years and had 3700 poets participating. Both these places were held in legendary kumari kandam, which was submerged into sea. The third Sangam believed to be located in the current city of Madurai and lasted for 1850 years under 49 kings.
Sangam literature refers to a body of classical Tamil literature during third Sangam period. This collection said to contains 2381 poems written by 473 poets, some 102 of who are anonymous authors. The period during which these poems were written is commonly referred to as the 'Sangam' age, referring to the prevalent Sangam legends claiming literary academies lasting thousands of years, giving the name to the corpus of literature. Sangam literature is primarily secular dealing with everyday themes in a South Indian context. The poems belonging to the Sangam literature was composed by Tamil poets, both men and women, from various professions and classes of society. These poems were later collected into various anthologies, edited and had colophons added by anthologists and annotators after 1000 AD. Sangam literature fell out of popular memory soon thereafter, until scholars such as S. V. Damodaram Pillai and U. V. Swaminatha Iyer rediscovered them in the 19th century.
The available literature from this period was categorized and compiled in the 11th century into two categories based roughly on chronology. The categories are: The Major Eighteen Anthology Series Pathinenmaelkanakku comprising The Eight Anthologies Ettuthokai and the Ten Idylls Pattupattu and The Minor Eighteen Anthology Series Pathinenkilkanakku
There has been no contemporary archaeological or scientific evidence found to substantiate whether these academies existed at all and if so, the dates, the participants or their works. The historian and scientific community at large have dismissed claims of the description of sunken landmass Kumari kandam (Lemuria).
Between the fourth century B.C.E. and c 1000 B.C.E., the archaeological findings point to only a megalithic period, and going further back a Neolithic period starting from about the third millennium BC. These two prehistoric periods do not show any sign of a complex culture, and no clear connection with the dawn of urban civilization in Tamil Nadu.
Any accurate chronological assessment of literary works had been rendered difficult due to lack of concrete scientific evidence to support conflicting claims. Undue reliance on the Sangam legends have thus culminated in controversial opinions or interpretations among scholars, confusion in the dates, names and personal accounts of authors and doubts of even their existence in some cases.
The earliest archeological evidence connecting Madurai and the Sangams is the tenth century Cinnamanur inscription of the Pandyas.
Although the term Sangam literature is applied to the corpus of Tamil literature claimed to belong to the 200 BCE – 200 CE, the name Sangam and the legend indicates much later date. The literature does not contain any mention of the Sangam academies, although some relationship between Madurai and literature may be found in some of the Sangam age literature. References to Sangam and its association with Madurai have been mentioned by poets such as Sekkilar, Andal, Auvaiyar and Kambar (all belonging to the tenth to the thirteen centuries CE). The actual poems of the Sangam literature themselves do not directly mention such academies. However the poem Mathuraikkanci (761-763), which belongs to the early collection of Pattupattu, describes kudala(Said to be Previous name of Madurai) as the 'place where authors met and interacted
The word Sangam(confluence of Rivers) is Sanskrit origin, coming from Sangha, the Buddhist and Jain term for an assembly of monks. In Tamil the word means "assembly" or "academy".
Many sangha’s with different acharyas were born after Kundakonda (1st century AD). The great Acharya Kundakunda is associated with Mula Sangh, According to Devasen the process of dividing from the Mula Sangha(Under Gangas in Mysore) began in the 5th century many Ganas, gachchas or sanghas originated. Chief among them are Sen gana (Karanja, Vidarbh), Balatkara gana (Balligame, Banswasi, Karnataka), Nandi gana Desi gana, Dramis gana, Kranur gana, Saraswati gachcha, Dravida Sangha, nandi Sangha, Mayur sangha, Kitthur sangha and Kulattu sangha.
We can also find Jain names such as Uloccnaar and Maathirthan among the early poets. Jain cosmology and mythology are also found mentioned in the early Sangam poems. The Sangam Literature liberally uses Vedic Legends, such as Thiru Murugatrupadai for Muruga Birth or all the Avathars of Vishnu in Paripadal, and paripadal even names Samaveda. Mathurai Kanchi refers a Sanskrit Assembly in Kanchipuram. Mankmekhalai even makes it much more clear that Anthanars used Sanskrit
Iravatham Mahadevan says that Devasena, the author of Darsanasara, a Prakriti work written in 853 A.D. has mentioned that Vajranandi, the pupil of Pujyapada, founded the Dravida Sangha in Madurai in 468-469 A.D. The work does mention Dravida Sangha , But the work does not mention it is from Madurai but in Amaravati in Andhra pradesh and it is not Tamil, but Jain religious Sangha. Iravatham Mahadevan is twisting facts here. The Dravida Sangha is also mentioned in Kannada inscriptions from Karnataka.
If we see the evidence there is nothing to suggest Tamil sangam’s existed not in Tamil literature, inscriptions or other literatures. Only the Jain sangha’s have become legends and by the turn of 10th century AD, they have come to mean literary sangha’s. Iravatham Mahadevan seems to have proven to himself that Tamil sangam’s exist, but the verdict is still out there, they are still Jain sangha where Sanskrit was the Lingua franca. Another pillar of Tamil antiquity seems to have absolutely no backup.