Tens of thousands of asthma-sufferers swallowed live sardines or murrel fish smeared with a yellow herbal paste in a ritual performed Wednesday that they believe will cure their breathing problems.

The Goud family that administers the traditional treatment in the southern city of Hyderabad says its ancestors received the secret formula from a Hindu saint about 170 years ago. They refuse to reveal the mixture's ingredients, and doctors say it is unproven.

Those treated are often poor, but many say it has benefited them, and the government helps make arrangements for the large crowds who come to Hyderabad, the joint capital of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh states.

The fish is sold cheaply by the Telangana government and private groups, costing people 15 rupees, or about 7 cents, per fish.

The family offers the treatment annually on a day chosen by astrologers. Family member Bathini Harinath Goud said the treatment started Wednesday morning and will continue for 24 hours.

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The herbal paste is slipped into the sardines and then put into the mouth of the asthma-sufferers.

People who swallow the live fish and paste are told to follow a strict diet for the next 45 days, abstaining from fried foods while only eating 25 different items, including lamb, rice, white sugar, dried mango, spinach and clarified butter.