Three different Cankams (SHAN-kams; “literary academies”) have existed in south India during different time periods, beginning about 500 b.c.e. The first, Thalai Cankam, was founded by the Pāndyan king Kaisina Vazhudhi at Thenmadurai and nurtured hundreds of poets of exceptional caliber such as Agasthiyar. After a deluge, Kadungon, a Pāndyan king, founded Middle Cankam at Kapadapuram. This academy fostered scholarly poets who created literary works such as Tolkāppiyam (c. 250 b.c.e.). After another deluge ravaged the land, King Mudal Thiru Maran persevered and founded the Third Cankam in Madurai.
Around two thousand poems were composed during the entire Cankam period by about 473 poets and compiled in eighteen volumes—eight volumes of shorter lyrics (Ettūtokai) and ten volumes of longer poems (Pattuppāttu). The most important aspect of this literature is the distinction between akam, the interior or the inner, and puram, the exterior or the outer, which together represent two sides of reality. Akam poetry deals with love, whereas puram poetry extols the virtues of heroism. In 1901, Pandithurai Thevar convened the fourth Cankam at Madurai and launched a library, a center for research in Tamil language and literature, a printing press, and a college for Tamil studies.