Now, artist Hiro Yamagata plans to commemorate the towering Buddhas by projecting multicolored laser images onto the clay cliffsides where the figures once stood.
"I'm doing a fine art piece. That's my purpose - not for human rights, or for supporting religion or a political statement," said the 58-year-old artist, whose other laser works include a permanent display at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Against a canvas of desert darkness, 14 laser systems will project 140 overlapping faceless "statues" sweeping four miles (6 1/2 kilometers) across Bamiyan's cliffs in neon shades of green, pink, orange, white and blue. Each image will continuously change color and pattern.
Powered by solar panels and windmills, the 125- to 175-foot (37.5- to 52.5-meter)-high squiggle-style, Day-Glo images - the same size as the original Buddhas - would be in stark contrast to the austere, rural valley below, a land wracked by poverty and violence; a land that has little electricity of its own.
In March 2001, Taliban militants disregarded worldwide protests and used dynamite and artillery to blow up the original fifth-century statues, famed for their size and location along the ancient Silk Road linking Europe and Central Asia. The fundamentalist group considered the Buddhas idolatrous and anti-Muslim.
"The destruction of the twin towers and the two Buddhas have been linked as a moment in time," said Robert Brown, 60, an art historian from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a curator of Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Yamagata's lasers obviously have a commemorative notion to them, like the 9/11 memorial in New York."
Afghan government officials first approached Yamagata in 2003 about the project and gave him conditional approval last year, pending a green light from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO has been a prominent presence in Bamiyan, evaluating ways to preserve mural paintings in caves surrounding the Buddhas.
"They are the ones who will make a decision and will advise us," Gulam Sakhi Yousafzai, former acting deputy minister in charge of arts and culture in Afghanistan, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "They are the experts. We are waiting for their response."
Bamiyan provincial Gov. Habiba Sarobi told the AP that she was aware of Yamagata's proposal, and hoped UNESCO could prove the cliffs would not be damaged by the 80-100 watt laser beams, which would be permanently projected every Sunday night for four hours.
"If there is a way to do it so there is no environmental impact, we would support it as it would boost tourism and the images would remind us of what (the cliffs) once looked like," Sarobi said.
Letters obtained by The Associated Press, sent to Yamagata from physics and chemistry experts at the University of Antwerp and Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, noted that the beams will not affect the cliffs because of low power levels cast from a safe distance of between six and eight miles.
Zahir Aziz, Afghan ambassador to UNESCO, said he would strongly recommend Yamagata's lasers if they went through UNESCO. He also confirmed that a Swiss plan to rebuild the Buddhas at $30 million (?24 million) a statue is no longer in the works.
Meanwhile, Yamagata, who estimates his project's cost at up to $9 million (?7.27 million), has been busy amassing funds, materials and workers for his vision from his home-base at an industrial warehouse in suburban Torrance, California.
The walls are adorned with colorful photographs and sketches of the Bamiyan and other upcoming projects, including a display in the Fiji Islands where he will create a huge holographic Mylar cube suspended on top of one of the islands. Smaller-scale versions of his most famous conceptual works - including the house-sized holographic cubes exhibited at Bilbao's Guggenheim and other places throughout the world - are scattered around the studio.
Shortly after his 2003 meeting with Afghan officials in Tokyo, Yamagata visited Bamiyan and was moved by its orphaned children, squalid living conditions and lack of electricity. He decided then that his artwork should also give something back to the war-torn region.
Of the roughly 140 4,000-kilowatt windmills he plans to ship into Afghanistan for the Bamiyan project, Yamagata said that 100 of them would provide power for surrounding villages. He also wants to hire 40 local young men, typically jobless, to dig foundations for the windmills, starting in March 2006. Completion of the project is set for June 2007.
Yamagata, a longtime Los Angeles resident who was born in Japan, said he has already secured cosponsorship from Mercedes-Benz, and will choose a windmill company in December.
"Many people say, 'My art will heal the people.' I always avoid 'heal the people,'" Yamagata said. "Of course, I help people, but it's more about not harming people. An artist to me is more about inner matter."